Directed by: Ridley Scott
Premise: Set in the near future, NASA astronauts investigate the surface of Mars. When a storm forces the astronauts to abandon their mission, one of them is accidentally left behind and must find a way to survive while NASA executives figure out how to rescue him.
What Works: The Martian is another science fiction film from director Ridley Scott who had previously made movies like Alien, Prometheus, and Blade Runner. Scott is back on familiar turf with The Martian and the science fiction genre allows the director to show off his skill at art direction. In sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and historical epics like Kingdom of Heaven, Scott does a wonderful job of creating fully realized environments that have the feel of a lived-in place rather than a movie set. The Martian is a terrific production and the interiors and exteriors display extensive attention to detail. The movie is frequently gorgeous with scenes of the stranded astronaut traveling across the Mars landscape. The Earthly locations in which the movie was shot and the computer generated enhancements are indistinguishable and the movie has a seamless reality that is absorbing. The impression of authenticity in the design of the movie is reflective of the story. The Martian is a really unusual film from a Hollywood studio. The story eschews many of the usual components of Hollywood filmmaking; it does not have a villain or characters in competition with each other. Instead, The Martian is about people doing their best and acting earnestly and cooperatively and in that respect this picture stands apart from Ridley Scott’s other sci-fi movies. Where Alien depicted a universe in which “no one can hear your scream,” The Martian is a celebration of the human spirit and mankind’s ingenuity and intellect. As that the movie resonates and this is a film about smart people working through a difficult set of problems in a rational way. While doing that, the filmmakers do not lose sight of the drama of the story. The humanity of The Martian is largely due to the performance by Matt Damon as the marooned astronaut. The success or failure of this picture rests on his performance and Damon succeeds; he is credible as a scientist in an extraordinary situation but he is also an empathetic human being. The astronaut is allowed a sense of humor that is very funny and further humanizes the character. Watching this astronaut problem solve his way through his unusual circumstance is the best element of the movie and to The Martian’s benefit that makes up the bulk of this picture.
What Doesn’t: A few of the plot complications of The Martian come across as arbitrary or they are telegraphed too explicitly to the audience. When the hero’s fortunes take a turn for the worse the filmmakers spoil the shock because they all but tell the audience that something terrible is about to happen. The film has a few moments like this and there are a handful of elements of the plot that don’t make sense in retrospect. Fortunately, The Martian is generally engaging enough that these inconsistencies don’t occur to the viewer until later. The bigger problem for The Martian is its lack of characterization. Damon gets by on his charm but we don’t learn much about him and the movie lacks a dark-night-of-the-soul moment or a meaningful character arc. The rest of the people in The Martian are granted even less characterization than the title role and many of them are little more than caricatures such as the NASA director played by Jeff Daniels and the press officer played by Kristen Wiig. Compare these characters to Ed Harris’ role as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13; he was similarly removed from the action but he was also a full-fledged character who was materially and emotionally involved in the outcome of the story.
Bottom Line: The Martian is a well told survival story. The movie is intelligent without being offputtingly cerebral and it succeeds as a science-driven sci-fi tale that is also a mainstream audience pleaser.
Episode: #563 (October 11, 2015)