The following review discusses The Martian in-depth. It contains material some might view as a spoiler. Please click away if you want to go into the movie unspoiled.
Sir Ridley Scott makes great use of Gloria Gaynor’s fiercely self-satisfied anthem "I Will Survive" during his jubilant space thriller, The Martian. As it turns out, the disco track is the ideal exclamation point to this triumphant accomplishment, a vibrant mood-maintainer that successfully keeps the film’s party vibe going. It works perfectly for those who’ll want to pump their fists, high-five audience members in your vicinity, and dance out of the theater after experiencing one of the year’s most enjoyable and exhilarating films.
Our eyes haven’t turned to the skies as frequently as they used to. Space missions used to command the attention of the global community, with astronauts viewed as celebrities or rock gods inside and out of their specialized fields. The exploration of space has become mundane. But in a few weeks, audiences will be able to travel – quite literally venture – to the Red Planet for the cost of a movie ticket. A simple movie ticket! One piece of advice, though. Spend whatever it costs for the 3D. Rarely has the visual-enhancement technology been better utilized on screen.
Based on the award-winning novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the impossible story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), one member of an exploration team on the planet Mars, who is left for dead on the desolate planet after his crew barely escapes a devastating storm. Only, Watney didn’t die. And when he wakes up to the reality of his terrifying situation, he realizes that he has limited resources and infinite obstacles if he’s going to endure and even survive. ("First I was afraid, I was petrified…")
The Martian sounds scary. It rarely is. First and foremost, the movie is a celebration of ingenuity, of intelligent problem-solving in the face of life-altering deadlines, and of the stubborn, never-quit attitudes that should be spotlighted in the human spirit. Through the resilient and hysterical Matt Damon, Mark Watney immediately joins a short list of classic on-screen heroes pulled from numerous genres – Westerns, sci-fi, action-thrillers – who refuse to lose, and seem to grow larger (physically and emotionally) when they are faced with insurmountable odds. And even though The Martian occupies an alien environment, it’s shockingly grounded and accessible.
When you stop and think about it, The Martian benefits from a single-minded and relatively simple premise. An astronaut is stranded 140 million miles from home, and NASA is trying to figure out how to bring him back. But Weir’s story, and Drew Goddard’s crowd-friendly script, never forgets that they are entertaining novices instead of preaching to engineers and astrophysicists. There’s a lot of necessary science crammed into the Martian screenplay, as Watney – a botanist – figures out how to expand his rations, or NASA team members (personified by everyone from Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor to Donald Glover and Benedict Wong) troubleshoot solutions and race the clock to make the impossible possible. To the film’s immense credit, The Martian never operates above its audiences’ head, and continually lays out each obstacle, as well as the possible solution. It repeatedly reminds us of Mark’s "overwhelming odds," then pops imaginary champagne when the isolated scientist experiences victory. You only get a few minutes of joy, though, before the tension sets back onto the movie’s shoulders so we can see how things can go right (or horribly wrong).
I want to pause briefly to gush about the film’s production values, which aren’t "sexy" but are crucial to the overall experience of the film. The vast and deserted locations are breathtakingly frightening, in that you honestly believe that Matt Damon and Ridley Scott somehow managed to shoot on the Red Planet’s horrific surface. The 3D is spectacular, and it puts you inside the suits, inside the ships, and on Mars’ landscape… which sounds unfeasible but I’m telling you, it has happened here. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is understatedly encouraging and uplifting. And the soundtrack keeps the mood vibrant, including ABBA and David Bowie without forcing the issue. Because, of course!
Is The Martian an Oscar picture? That’s the inevitable question whenever a star-studded event picture like this plays a fall film festival. Right now, the film’s prospects in the annual awards race are stellar, and I can see successful bids for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and a half-dozen technical nods for Sir Ridley Scott’s thriller. The thing about The Martian is that it plays more as an roller-coaster event picture, but appeals to the smarter, more mature and demanding audiences who tend to turn out for end-of-year dramatic fare. It bridges the gap between effects-driven tentpoles and Oscar-seeking human dramas. No matter your taste, you’ll find something to celebrate here. It’s one of the year’s best films.