If the jubilant 80s soundtrack and snappy wisecracks of last year’s lively space romp, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ revived the sanguine sci-fi, then Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ has taught it to walk. In what could have easily echoed Warner Bros.’ award-winning space disaster epic, ‘Gravity,’ ‘The Martian,’ rather, not only evokes an optimistic outlook on space exploration but also injects a rebellious dose of realism and humor despite its eccentric protagonist being stranded 140 million miles from the planet we call home.
Reserving its ‘Gravity’ parallels to the beautiful CGI crimson storm of an opening sequence, echoing ‘Alien’ esque helmet lamps in the process, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is subsequently forced to withdraw her exploration crew from the red planet. Although the team of Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, and a delightful Michael Pena escape Mars in one piece – Chastain’s Melissa made the strenuous decision of abandoning Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after being separated by the storm and impaled by a radio antenna, suggesting his suit has been severely breached. Yet, the very antenna that stranded Watney also plugged the breach, which in itself is a miracle if it wasn’t immediately overshadowed by the fact that he’s also trapped on Mars with only enough sols (Martian days) of food to last just over a year; the next mission arrives in 4. Henceforth, Watney is tasked with growing food on a planet where nothing grows; finding water on a planet where none flows (as of filming); and communicate with NASA millions of miles away – all of which Watney accomplishes with a smile, witty self documentation, and survival proficiently that would make Les Stroud proud and Neil Armstrong weep.
Granted the unfamiliar parameters in which Mark has to work with, which despite several instances of technical jargon is simplified to having to “science the shit out of this,” would have been intriguing enough – an ensemble blend of comedic and dramatic actors employ an unexpected lot of playful banter (in most cases softening audience skepticism and contrasting the severity of the situation). While Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor are provided most of the dramatic heavy lifting back home, confronting media and exploring unconventional rescue methods, sparring uses of Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, and the aforementioned Pena are given a handful of scenes that transcend this survival sci-fi into a borderline comedy.
Damon, however, distances himself from recent darker performances in ‘Elysium’ and ‘Interstellar,’ and evokes perhaps his most charismatic performance to date. More impressively, even without the aid of the adept line-up the 45-year old veteran embraces Mark’s isolationism, flexing a lively dialect with a combination of self-deprecating awareness and egotistical confidence, which, together, craft one of the most influential protagonists of contemporary cinema. Yet, throughout the film Mark feels like the subject of true story rather than a science fiction protagonist. Seemingly restricted in NASA’s realistic procedures to the situation, the aforementioned comedy and moral decisions faced by Daniels, Chastain, and Eijofor’s characters help inject life and believable tension – instilling a revitalizing sense of excitement to space exploration and the humans who make it happen.
But even when press statements, insane planetary physics and international relations aren’t being debated, ‘The Martian’ embodies a uniquely human score of 80s disco – the only source of music Mark has access to, much to his dismay – striking a familiar nerve on an dangerously alien planet. Unfortunately, at times Scribe Drew Goddard reached too far to touch that human nerve – notably cramming Hennie, Stan, Pena, and Mara’s astronauts with sudden backstory mere moments into the final stretch of the 3rd act. Most eye-rolling, though, is reserved for the less than 2 minutes allotted for Mara and Stan’s characters’ sudden relationship, an avoidable stumble if red-hot Kate Mara hadn’t jumped on the already loaded bandwagon.
‘The Martian’ receives a 4.5/5