Following into the footsteps of Gravity & Interstellar, The Martian arrives as the space voyage of 2015 that presents its own take on outer space exploration & survival in the face of imminent death and also marks a welcome return to form for director Ridley Scott, who of lately had been going through a rough patch. A fascinating blend of science, action, adventure, drama, suspense & humour, and riding high on extensive support from NASA which came off as an unexpected surprise, The Martian is a deeply informative, thoroughly engrossing & highly amusing sci-fi epic that handles its narrative with more optimism than most of its counterparts and is definitely amongst the better films of this year.
Set in the near future, The Martian tells the story of Mark Watney; an astronaut who, during a manned mission to Mars, finds himself being left behind by his crew when a severe dust storm forces them to abort their mission & return to the orbiting vessel, during which Mark is struck off by flying debris & is presumed dead. But having survived the fierce storm, Mark wakes up to find himself all alone on the hostile planet and is left with no choice but to come up with some plan that would enable him to send a signal back to Earth to confirm that he’s alive, in addition to rationing his meagre supplies in a manner that would allow him to survive long enough till the next team arrives there to safely rescue him.
Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner & Gladiator), The Martian makes extensive use of all his trademarks and is a much better project he’s undertaken than his previous few assignments for the material it packs in is more promising and the technicality of which required someone with an in-depth knowledge of technical filmmaking for it to work at its very best, which Scott is able to provide quite effortlessly. The plot intercuts three storylines; first concerns Mark Watney & his struggle to survive on the other planet, second is centred at NASA where everyone is devising plans to bring him back, while third follows his crewmates who are plotting a coup to break protocol & go save him before it’s too late, and under Scott’s supervision, it all works out.
The screenplay by Drew Goddard is adapted from the novel of the same name and he’s done a good job with the content for the main plot surfaces right within the opening moments where we find these characters caught in the fierce storm, following which it settles down to further expand its subplots but keeps its core focus on the guy left behind on Mars. The arc of Mark Watney is also brilliantly handled as we easily invest our emotions in his survival attempts but it comes at the expense of other characters inhabiting this story for their arc development is pretty much nil. Another notable thing about the script is the use of humour in the story for even its bleak situations gleam with positive wit, and it’s refreshing to watch because it’s rarely present in films dealing with such subject matter.
Coming to the technical aspects, there’s a great amount of effort involved in The Martian to accurately depict the science behind everything but that doesn’t mean some liberty isn’t taken to enhance its drama. In fact, the very event that sets up its main plot wouldn’t be possible without the fictional element. With NASA on board, almost every scenario is explained in exhaustive detail and each set piece benefits from their added inputs. The microscopic presence of a man on the vast, lifeless deserts of the red planet is captured in breathtaking detail by its steadily moving camera. Editing, however, is a mixed bag for its 141 minutes of runtime is very much felt at times and the unfolding of its plot at an unhurried pace can become frustrating for some. Lastly, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score doesn’t add much to the story & is quite forgettable.
As far as performances go, The Martian features a reliable cast in Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan & Chiwetel Ejiofor, and yet it’s only Damon who owns the film all the way from the very beginning to the very end. Dangerously close to being labelled a typecast for his roles that often find his characters stuck in unwanted places before being rescued by another team, Damon brings everything he has to deliver a wonderfully balanced performance as Mark Watney; a botanist & part of the crew surveying on Mars who finds himself stranded on the planet after an intense dust storm separates him from the rest, and then relies on his creativity, wit & positive morale to learn surviving on an isolated planet, one day at a time. The rest of the supporting cast does an adequate job in their given roles but it’s Damon who carries the film all by himself and is the soul of this story.
On an overall scale, The Martian is a visually arresting, scientifically realistic & extremely grounded sci-fi epic about the indomitable will of the human spirit to survive against all odds and works as an awe-inspiring space adventure, thanks to Ridley Scott’s assured direction & Matt Damon’s heartwarming performance. While there have been many examples in the past that featured the red planet’s environment in its backdrop setting, The Martian is the first picture that takes its surroundings seriously & treats it with the respect it always deserved. Although technically accomplished, the film still misses a few elements in the storytelling department, is a few minutes longer than it needs to be, and not all its attempts at humour work out in its favour. However, much of its complaint is brushed away by its optimistic approach to space travel & exploration, the lighthearted yet emotionally rich experience it has in store, and its stringent focus on human condition despite the profundity in its science. Destined to please its crowd, The Martian is a thrilling spectacle whose timing couldn’t have been better.