Directed by: Ridley Scott || Produced by: Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood, Mark Huffam
Screenplay by: Drew Goddard || Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Askel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams || Cinematography by: Dariusz Wolski || Edited by: Pietro Scalia || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 141 minutes
Let me start this review off by saying I “prepared” for this movie by reading a book. Yes, that’s right, I read a fictional piece of literature (a novel I believe is what they’re called) before watching the cinematic adaptation of said literary piece. I think that’s like the second novel I’ve read since high school, namely because I believe cinema is a superior art form.
There, I said it!
Anywho, I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011) enough to finish the damned thing, despite the fact that much of the novel reads like a screenplay and numerous sections feel like the protagonist is reading off chemistry problem sets from a college textbook. As I suspected, the material translates well into film, transforming much of Weir’s bloated exposition into voiceovers against readily cinematic vistas of deserted Martian landscapes. The daily grind of a main character (Matt Damon’s Mark Watney) repeating mundane tasks like growing potatoes, cleaning solar panels, driving a rover in circles, and communicating with a diverse array of nerds at NASA flows surprisingly well on-screen with Ridley Scott’s veteran direction. You’d be surprised how much flavor a few editing tweaks like fast-motion, an up-beat ’70’s soundtrack, and well-placed POV-cameras can add to a story.
Another thing that helps is a likable, personable cast composed of the aforementioned Damon (in one of his best post-Jason Bourne roles), the rapidly rising stars of Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiojor, Michael Pena (who has apparently become Hollywood’s default male Hispanic — hey, I’ll take him any day over Michelle Rodriguez), and a guy who looks like Sean Bean but doesn’t die at the end. For my part, I wish the film had focused more on Damon/Watney like the book had, as he’s by far the most interesting and funny character, and less on the NASA side of things. I’m sure NASA (who had a heavy hand in funding and advising the film) pushed for emphasis on the latter. That being said, the benefit of film is you can remember faces much better than you remember names, and the overly talented earth-bound cast add some flavor to their rather forgettable book counterparts.
Veteran screenwriter Drew Goddard excises a few life-threatening scenarios from Weir’s novel for time purposes, and for the most part I agree with these decisions given how the movie pushes two hours and twenty-one minutes as it is, but again there could’ve been more room if the NASA sections had been minimized. Additionally, the epilogue that plays over the credits is unnecessary, and I was disappointed that the “every human has a natural instinct to help each other out” monologue from the trailer and the book’s final page didn’t make it into the final cut.
The film’s visuals are strong, every bit as impressive as Interstellar’s (2014) or Gravity’s (2013) but without constantly throwing around millions of CGI shit, annoying Sandra Bullock screams, or overly loud Hans Zimmer organ music. The Martian is beautiful and elegant without feeling showy or over-the-top. It’s a very restrained, “down-to-earth” feeling, if you pardon the pun. Much of the elegance of the scenery stems from great location shooting, minimal green screen, and effective digital editing.
I suppose whether one prefers The Martian to Gravity or Interstellar (look at that, three quality space-films made by three good directors three years in a row) largely depends on personal preference, or how much you like each director’s visual style. Alfonso Cuaron deals in intensity and in-your-face thrills; he prefers the rawness of human experience, while Christopher Nolan dallies in esoteric, high-minded philosophy and sheer narrative emotion; conversely, Scott has always been a more subtle, brooding, and patient director. His films are about suspense, mood, and sustained drama stretched over hours rather than within segregated set-pieces. For my part, I believe Scott’s take on modern space science-fiction represents a tasteful, mature middle-ground between Gravity’s high-octane but one-note thrills and Interstellar’s more thoughtful but preachy, new-age philosophy.
Nowhere in The Martian will you hear someone advocating how love can cross time and space — or whatever. If that doesn’t give Ridley Scott credibility, I don’t know what will.
In the end, The Martian succeeds by preserving the humor and personality of its source material and providing the necessary visuals that the book lacked. It keeps things personal without getting too hokey or melodramatic, and yet it provides just enough spectacle to keep you on edge and make the ending satisfying. Given my affection for the book and the incredibly intriguing premise, I wish the movie was better than it was, but at the end of the day The Martian is a quality blockbuster and Scott’s best film since Gladiator (2000). Plus, it’s nice to see a true science-fiction movie that portrays scientists as something other than either (A) socially awkward nerds or (B) heroic super-geniuses. You know, some realism?
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Martian’s greatest weapons are its personality, cast, and sense of humor. Damon gives arguably the funniest performance of his career, but he’s helped by a solid adapted screenplay from Goddard and reserved, effective direction from Scott. The 1970’s disco-soundtrack works better than you’d think.
— However… there was a lot of Mark Watney in this story, but it could have used more. I know NASA is really, really, important, but their scenes should have been edited, reduced, or excised. The film is brisk enough even at 141 minutes, but still not as well paced as it should be.
? So lemme get this straight: They recast an Indian character with a black actor and a Korean character with a white one? Hey, that’s racist… SO WAIT THIS MOVIE FUCKING SUCKS!