REVIEW: “The Martian”

The Martian poster

Ridley Scott’s filmography has been pretty amazing. A quick scan shows it to be littered with cult classics, blockbuster favorites, and Oscar winners. But over the last several years many have hit Scott’s films pretty hard. Personally I have disagreed with the many. I loved the slower, character-driven approach to “Robin Hood”. I don’t think “Prometheus” was nearly as bad as many do. And despite its noticeable flaws, I thought “Exodus” was a pretty grand spectacle.

But now the 77 year-old Scott has once again caught the attention of his critics with “The Martian”, a brainy and somewhat observational  science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Scott has long enjoyed delving into the science fiction realm, yet with “The Martian” he has managed to create something unique. This entertaining mixture of striking visuals and patient, methodical narrative has little in common with Scott’s past sci-fi experiences. “The Martian” is a much different movie but it still spotlights Scott’s talents as a filmmaker even though it may not sit among his best.

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“The Martian” plays out like some type of love letter to science and space exploration. There are A TON of science-heavy back-and-forths between the film’s large cast of characters and science is the centerpiece for nearly every scene. In many ways it was captivating to watch and listen to these people speak 10 light years over my head – bouncing around theories, equations, and analyzing data. At the same time it left two-thirds of the film feeling too emotionally dry. Drew Goddard’s script nails down the science but sometimes misses the human element.

The story hops into gear quickly when the Aries III Mars mission is hit by a brutal storm. They are forced to prematurely leave the surface and in the process astronaut and team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed killed and left behind. Actually though, Mark miraculously survived and wakes up to find himself alone and stranded on the red planet. Armed with more scientific knowledge than a stack of college textbooks, Mark determines to use his science knowhow to survive. That starts by figuring out a way to communicate back to Earth.

For me Matt Damon is the epitome of the ‘reliable actor’. He is always solid and you know what you’re going to get. Here he handles his alone scenes well often talking to only himself of a computer screen. Many scenes require him to carry them ala Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”. He doesn’t exhibit the charisma or charm of Hanks but he more than gets the job done and you never doubt him or his predicaments.

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The film’s second setting is on Earth. Upon discovering that Mark is alive, NASA sets out to find a feasible rescue plan. To accomplish this the movie introduces us to a host of characters many of which function solely to toss around their own scientific solutions. An interesting ensemble is put together for the NASA scenes. On the better side of the group is the rock-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. In much more curious casting, Kristen Wiig feels terribly out of place as NASA’s chief spokesperson. And while Jeff Daniels certainly wasn’t “bad”, he was a bit hard to believe as the “Head of NASA”.

But there is a third setting and I would argue that it contains the more compelling and entertaining characters. It takes place aboard the Hermes where Mark’s crew is making the long trip back to Earth after losing one of their own. Or so they think. It’s here that the film gives us a better mix of science and human emotion. The casting is also stronger featuring Jessica Chastain, a reserved Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie. I loved spending time with this group.

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“The Martian” has wonderful visuals but not strictly in the way you might expect. There aren’t a lot of eye-popping visual spectacles. It’s more subtle and calculated, concentrating on gorgeous, slow-moving panoramic shots and unique, strategic camera angles that highlight the spectacular space settings. The storytelling is somewhat similar, at least until the last act. Most of the movie has the feel of a smaller more intimate picture despite its grand size and scale. I really appreciated that. It lasts right up until the finale. The ending felt much more studio polished and traditional.

Many people are heralding “The Martian” as a return to form for Ridley Scott. I would argue that he never lost his form but that is another discussion. Instead I’ll just say “The Martian” is another fine movie on a truly great filmmaker’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws. There is some questionable casting and some characters are woefully underdeveloped. Some of the humor doesn’t quite land (including a 70’s disco gag which never ends), and the ending was a bit too by-the-books. But none of these things keep “The Martian” from being a standout motion picture experience. It does several things we aren’t used to seeing from blockbustery type movies and it does them really well. And for me it is another reason why Ridley Scott remains a top-tier filmmaker.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

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35 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Martian”

  1. Big fan of the Weir novel and I have read it twice, lol. Glad that this is a proper return to form for Scott. I also enjoy some films of his that the majority may find slow, flawed or even unmemorable (I am also in the camp that feel Prometheus is way over-maligned). But this project, from the source material to the performances, FX and execution, just exudes that Ridley Scott greatness. I knew Scott had it in him to deliver the goods with The Martian along with Damon. I cannot wait to catch it next week! Fantastic review, man!

    • Also, I do feel that he never really lost his “form” either, let me re-phrase that: I like that the general consensus this go around is very positive including the good BO turn-out and critical reviews being so positive and that he is “back” in that regard, so to say. (I never saw Exodus but am very intrigued, now)

      • Exodus is far from a bad movie yet it received a lot of unearned criticism. Again not perfect and not among his best, but very intriguing cinema for sure.

  2. Interesting read Keith. Seems I’m a bit against the grain on this one! Glad you enjoy it though, you know have me curious about Prometheus which I never got around to watching

  3. I also think Scott never really lost it (although I didn’t like The Counselor) and I loved both Prometheus and Exodus. The Martian was amazing and I can’t wait to see if there will be an ever longer director’s cut.

    • I really liked it too. I just found myself struggling with the points I mentioned. They made it hard for me to call this one of his best. I am anxious to see it again though.

  4. We do have pretty similar opinions on this one! I’m also with you on Prometheus. I wouldn’t try and hold it up as a towering work of genius or anything like that but I definitely think it’s better than a lot of people make out. It has taken a right old kicking over the years (though I should probably add I had a couple of beers before watching it!). Maybe I should give Exodus a go sometime. I actually enjoyed The Counsellor too.

    • I’m hearing early Oscar buzz swirling around for The Martian. I just don’t see it. It is good but the ending was so studio polished and the NASA scenes never had much life to them. But the film certainly looked great and I really enjoyed the crew of the Hermes.

  5. Taken as a film, separate from the Weir novel, it’s a solid film. Just as you call Matt Damon reliable, I think that’s sort of what I’d describe the film as – a reliable, sci-fi/space exploration film. It does what it sets out to do for you as a viewer.

    Though as a fan of the book, I was a little disappointed with some aspects. Just the sense of utter loneliness and sheer survival that Watney has to go through I don’t think is conveyed well enough in the film. That’s what really drew me to the book and I was hoping for a bit more drama on that side in the film.

    • You know that’s a very good observation. I haven’t read the book so I’m unfamiliar with the source material. But you’re right, there is no established sense of loneliness. It’s all about the science and simply getting the job done. There are only a couple of small scenes that show any emotion from Mark whatsoever. Instead he is more of a open science book instead of a human being.

  6. Glad you enjoyed this too Keith! I never thought of it as a love letter to science and space exploration but hey that could very well be. I agree Damon is a reliable actor and he’s just so darn likable here. I even gave this one a 4.5 since I loved it so much. And those disco music is so much fun! 😀

    • Not really in my opinion. I did enjoy the movie but there were a few things that kept it from being great. Damon perhaps but definitely wouldn’t get my Best Picture vote

  7. I’m pretty much in the majority that it was a solid, entertaining film that Scott can be proud of, however, it’s not mind-blowing or an outstanding film. I agree with your rating of 4 out of 5. I’m a bit harsher with the underplayed roles of a large cast. I wish future scripts would scale down the cast and provide plumper characterizations. Nice review, Keith.

    • Exactly Cindy!!! I really thought there were a number of completely throw-away characters. I would love for some of them to have been culled out and more time given to others.

  8. Nice post Keith. I enjoyed this, but for some of the same reasons you stated better than I did, I did not love. I never really felt any tension or mystery if Watney would fail or not survive. That kind of did me in, plot-wise.

    Hard not to compare with somethings like Interstellar and Gravity, even though I hate comparisons, generally. Though the former was much longer than it needed to be, and could have benefitted from some clarity in its story, I loved the drama and the general mystery in not knowing how it would end. I did find myself much more invested in The Martian in comparison to Gravity.

    • For me this one wasn’t nearly as absorbing as either Interstellar or Gravity. The Martian, while good, felt way too underplayed and that polished up conventional ending was a let down. And some of those characters and scenes back at NASA just didn’t do much for me. I did enjoy many things about it though.

  9. I’ve been meaning to get back to this for a week. I loved the movie and your review, but we have one big discrepancy, I thought the crew on the ship was underdeveloped, under used and in the end, underwhelming. It was not the fault of the actors who I thought were great, it was the script, which gave them an hour and then minutes and then finally seconds to solve problems that were as big as the ones faced by Damon and the Earthbound characters. Other than that, we are simpatico.

    • Actually that is kind of my point. I really wanted to spend more time with them because they were interesting. I agree they were underused but they had character and I found them compelling. You’re right, we needed more of them.

      On the flip side, outside of Ejiofor, there wasn’t a NASA character back on earth that felt compelling. Most were dry, flimsy, and did little to develop as characters. That was a bit disappointing.

  10. Pingback: The Top 10 Films of 2015 | Keith & the Movies

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