The Martian – Movie Review

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan.

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s been a big week for Mars. First we found water and then we lost Matt Damon. Well, you win some you lose some. At least that’s the case in Ridley Scott’s triumphant return with a faithful adaption of a bestselling novel in the Martian. 

Matt Damon is Mark Watney, astronaut and botanist. During a mission to Mars, Watney is presumed dead following a storm and is left behind on the great red planet. Turns out, Watney is very much alive and will need to “science the shit out” of Mars to survive until NASA can pick him up in 4 years – give or take a few days. Watney will need to grow enough food to survive on a planet where nothing grows, produce water on a planet that has none (well until last week) and figure out a way to contact Earth, all the while trying his hardest to not die. Remember that scene from Apollo 13 where they say we need to make X device using only Y materials? Well stretch that scene out to a feature length film and you have the Martian. 

Based off Andy Weir’s novel of the same name (read my review here), Ridley Scott’s adaption remains extremely faithful to the source material. Many scenes play out exactly as they did in my mind’s eye while reading the book and much of the dialogue is taken directly from the page. Accordingly, fans of the novel (of which there are many) are unlikely to be let down by the film transition. For non-book readers, the Martian‘s captivating plot, hard yet accessible sci-fi, stella cast and solid direction will be enough to pull you aboard the Mars hype train.

The Martian stars everyone. That’s simply the easiest way to put it. In economic terms, the collective salary of the Martian’s cast is probably about the same as the economy of Ecuador. Among the litter of stars there a few stand-outs: Jeff Daniels is fantastic as always as NASA director Teddy Sanders, Sean Bean is characteristically empathetic and uncharacteristically alive for the duration of the running time, and Childish Gambino, Donald Glover brings his trademark spasmodic energy to the two scenes he appears in. Above all however is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The man is a talent and is perfectly cast as director of the Mars mission, Venkat Kapoor.  In fact, due credit must be given to the casting director for the excellent choices for the plethora of characters in the Martian, from Jessica Chastain as Captain Lewis, Michael Pena as the astronaut Martinez, Kristen Wiig as foul mouthed head of PR Annie Montrose and of course Matt Damon as Mark Watney.

Damon works well as the always optimistic, wise-cracking Watney.  His likability lends itself to extended periods of time alone on screen without wearing down the audience. His comedic delivery ensures the jokes, almost all of which are taken directly from the book, do not fall flat. His performance is solid and it works for the character.

Humor is a huge element of the novel and in many ways Scott’s version both tones down the humor and improves on it. Scott knows which jokes will hit and he subtly amends and improves the ones that were likely to miss. Many jokes which made me cringe in the book are delivered in way to evoke a hearty laugh in the film. Likewise, whereas I found the humor over-saturated in the novel,  Scott is far more selective and ensures the comedy does not take precedence over the plot. Although in the end I don’t think Scott got the balance between humor and plot completely right, tending to be a little too conservative with the jokes.

Balance is my biggest criticism of the Martian.  Simply, too much time ends up being spent with NASA back on Earth. In the second half of the film the focus gradually shifts to Earth and the attempts by NASA to develop a workable plan to bring Watney home. It’s not that these scenes are not entertaining – far from it, but ultimately Watney’s Macgyver like struggles for survival is what makes the Martian so compelling and I found myself wishing I had been given more of that. The result is that many of Watney’s scenes feel rushed or cut short (especially if you have read the book beforehand) and significant scenes of survival from the book are cut out completely, for example, Watney’s long trek in the Rover. The ultimate effect of this is that we never gain a true sense of Watney’s isolation and struggle, because we simply don’t spend enough time alone with him. We don’t end up empathising with Watney on the same level as we did with say Tom Hanks in Castaway, where most of the running time was spent on the island with just Hanks and Wilson.

Nevertheless, the Martian is one of the most entertaining films of the year, a great adaptation and some of Ridley Scott’s best work in recent memory. Funny, smart and full of high tension scenes, the Martian shouldn’t be missed.

You can pick up the blu-ray here.

Or check out the novel here.

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