Thursday, October 15, 2015

"The Martian" Review: A Rousing Tale Of Survival Anchored By A Stellar Performance By Star Matt Damon


How many great movies are there that take place on Mars? There are a couple decent ones with Brian De Palma's visually breathtaking but narratively bankrupt Mission to Mars as one example and at least one good one with the entertaining B movie style Red Planet. But there has never been a GREAT movie that takes place on Mars...until now. Legendary director Ridley Scott has always been sort of hit or miss when it comes to his filmography but with The Martian (his third venture into outerspace) and star Matt Damon as his muse, he has produced a film that is equal parts crowd pleasing blockbuster and inspirational tale of survival. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital             
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  2 hr 14 min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: October 2, 2015

Biases:  
Loves: Ridley Scott, Matt Damon
Likes: Reality based Sci-fi, survival stories
Neutral:  Routine plot points and obstacles
Hates: Those last few minutes of the rescue are a bit...not too real feeling
What other film did Matt Damon get stranded in space in?: Interstellar.


The ARES 3 Mars team has just been informed by NASA that there is a large storm heading their way and that after only a couple weeks on mission they must evacuate immediately and begin their long journey home. During their rushed evacuation they lose team member and Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in the storm and after all signs point to his death team commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders her team to leave before none of them make it. However, much to the surprise of Commander Lewis and her crew, those at NASA and even to himself, Watney survived the storm with some minor injuries and now finds himself stranded on the barren Mars planet with no hope of rescue any time soon. So, using his skills as a Botanist Watney must find a way to survive the harsh conditions on the red planet with little to no food or water until a rescue mission can be launched and reach him in about 3 years or so.

Let's get the obvious comparisons out of the way first. Anyone who has ever seen a story of survival, regardless of the location, has likely seen this story told to death. A man/woman gets left behind and/or is stranded with little to no hope of survival and must fend for themselves whilst battling the forces of nature which more often than not tries its damnedest to foil their efforts. More obvious comparisons however come from two films in particular with Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away. Aside from the apparent similarities such as space and isolation, the only other thing that is needed to make these comparisons identical is if Tom Hanks (who starred in both Apollo 13 and Cast Away) had been cast in the lead role of Watney instead of Damon.


That should be enough to give you an overall idea of what type of film The Martian is, but what separates it from all other thematically similar films (and the thing that separates all films in this genre) is the stellar performance by the lead actor, here with Matt Damon in the pilots seat. It cannot be stressed enough how much this film hinged on the actor in the lead role as unlike most other films, the survival genre is (mostly) focused solely on one individual and we better like them or else the whole enterprise falls apart. That makes the decision to cast Matt Damon in the role of stranded astronaught Mark Watney a near masterstroke of genius.

Matt Damon is one of, if not the most, charismatic and instantly likable on screen personalities in Hollywood at the moment, His charm is undeniable and he is immensely relatable in almost any role he plays. Heck, this is the guy that made us actually understand and agree with the decision to send a small squad of WW2 soldiers to their deaths to save him in Saving Private Ryan and that's just sort of insane! So by putting Damon front and center the filmmaker's jobs were made much easier leaving the only real hurdle of providing a clear and concise narrative that balanced both the humor and terror of the situation without giving favor to one over the other and keeping a modest level of believability to the whole thing.


Ridley Scott is a director who knows how to accomplish this difficult task. One only needs to look at his work on Thelma and Louise to see how much he understands the yin and yang of a story that pulls in so many directions. With The Martian however Scott simultaneously paves new ground for himself as a filmmaker by focusing primarily on one character (something he lightly touched on with Alien) and covers well-trodden territory dealing with all the scenes off planet where we spend a surprising amount of time with a large number of side characters away from the action on Mars.

That is perhaps the most impressive feat of The Martian, that with all the bouncing around from Mars to Earth and to the ARES 3 crew heading home, nobody feels like they got short shrifted. It helps of course that Scott has wrangled one of the best ensemble group of supporting actors in a long time. From Jeff Daniels, Chiwetell Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sean Bean (spoiler: He lives this time!), any one of these people could (and usually do) support a film all on their own and here they bring their A games to roles that are fairly insignificant when compared to Damon's role and the film as a whole is all the better for it.


If there were one failing to the film it would have nothing to do with the performances or the execution but more to do with the conceits of the genre itself. While Damon keeps us engaged throughout with his charming personality and good humor, it's all too easy to see the wizard behind the curtain orchestrating everything we are seeing. Whenever Watney suffers a setback we get a few scenes where he wallows in his failure only to suddenly spring back to life again with a new idea which soon turns his drawback into a triumph. This back and forth happens all throughout The Martian and isn't even just relegated to Mars as we see the crew at NASA and even the ARES 3 crew struggle with overcoming one obstacle only to be faced with a new one that is overcome once all seems lost.

These issues are not just relegated to The Martian as any film or story, including the aforementioned Cast Away and Apollo 13, all succumb to these necessities at one point or another, it's just the nature of the beast as they say. The true measure of any film though is whether or not it is able to overcome such hurdles and without a doubt The Martian does just that. Expert filmmaking combined with an excellent script and an all star cast giving it their all, it is impossible to walk away from it and not feel inspired and entertained. Film is a collaborative effort and no where more recently than The Martian is that more readily apparent. This is the very first successfully great cinematic mission to Mars and the benchmark for any and all future missions.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

Often times a film is divisive in the way that not everyone may enjoy it for one reason or another. Only an elite few every year are able to appeal to the majority and those are usually established franchises such as Jurassic World, but The Martian has that appeal. It is inspirational, funny, dramatic and above all else it is a human story with interesting and likable people doing incredible things in the face of adversity. It's rare to use this term and not feel like it is being oversold, but his is a true crowd-pleaser of a movie.

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