First off, I’d like to state that this is a review for the movie The Martian that is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Matt Damon. It is not a review for The Martian novel by Andy Weir, though I did read that book last year when it was released and loved it. It is rather easy to give a one sentence pitch for this movie: it’s Castaway on Mars. But I feel that comparison is too simplistic and that The Martian is not good in all the same ways that Castaway is good. For starters, The Martian has a far larger cast of characters, which takes a lot of the onus off of Matt Damon to single-handedly carry the film with a complex and emotional performance. Secondly, The Martian is a lot funnier than expected. And finally, The Martian might have a plot focused around one man marooned on Mars but that is not what the story is about. Instead, it is about the beauty and terror of space exploration as well as the unfathomable bravery of those who take small steps alone so that we might all take giant leaps together.
Matt Damon portrays The Martian’s protagonist, Mark Watney, and does an excellent job of depicting the resourceful mind and humourous-under-pressure attitude of the astronaut from the novel. Due to the source material and the screenplay, Damon only has a few scenes in which to portray the deeper emotional struggles of Watney. These are small moments in the grand scheme of the movie, but each one is earned and gives a glimpse of the emotional and mental struggle Watney faces over and above the day-to-day physical and environmental struggles. However, part of me does wish these could have been more attention given to that aspect of Watney’s story. Most of the time while struggling against the conditions on Mars Watney manages to crack a joke or keep up a generally positive attitude. This is impressive considering very early on Watney states that “If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab beaches, I'll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death” (The Martian). It succeeds in making Watney a likeable character that clearly has the chops to survive this kind of ordeal. However, sometimes it makes it seem as if Watney has it a little too easy. Unless something goes especially wrong, he’s got the whole thing figured out and its just a numbers game waiting until help arrives. This isn’t helped by the fact that the rest of the cast of characters learns Watney is alive very quickly (they don’t actually find out quicker than they do in the novel it just feels that way). This tends to make the moments where things do go wrong feel more contrived, as though those things had to happen because otherwise there would be no movie. In the novel, Watney’s humour makes him appear brave in the face of a near constant possibility of death from a hostile planet. In the film, Watney’s humour makes Mars look easier to take on than it really is or is meant to. Matt Damon is not giving a bad performance, none of the characters are, but the articulation of information to the audience is limited and thus when things do go wrong they don’t feel like the inevitable result of trying to live an extended period of time on Mars. Instead they feel like a movie plot unfolding before us. It takes you out of the experience during the moments when we need to feel the most invested.
What I believe to be the strongest part of The Martian is its depiction of space exploration. Specifically, the dangerous, beautiful, sacrificial, and important nature of it. When communicating with his fellow astronauts, Watney asks Commander Lewis to deliver a message to his parents if he doesn’t make it. In that message he talks about how if he does die on Mars he’s okay with that because it he’ll have done something really important. The Martian comes as the third movie in three years to depict characters struggling to survive in space (2013's Gravity and 2014's Interstellar being the other two). Arguably, of the three I think it does the best job of articulating the sense of wonder and terror faced by those individuals who become astronauts. By its very nature, Mars is constantly trying to kill Watney. Its not evil, its not malicious, its simply the natural result of a human being trying to survive on that planet. But unlike other movies that involve antagonistic natural forces, Mars is not made out to be the bad guy. In fact, Watney tells his fellow astronauts that every day he goes out to look at the vast horizons just because he can. Mars could at any moment be the death of Watney but its not the villain. There are dozens of shots during the movie that depict beautiful orbital or landscape pictures of Mars. They are always beautiful and wonderful. This movie isn’t the story of how space is trying to kill one man. It’s the story of how space might try to kill one man but he’s not just one man. He’s all of us. The people who aspire to reach out and touch planets and stars beyond are own choose to do so because they understand that its important. Exploration and discovery are important and valuable in and of themselves. And they’re not the achievements of individuals but the achievement of mankind itself. They are achievements that defy international and cultural boundaries. Watney comments on how “It's a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I'm the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill!” (The Martian). Even in the face of being trapped on Mars until rescue can arrive Watney never loses sight of how what he’s doing is miraculous and important. And Mark Watney might be alone on Mars, and he might be the first man to perform those acts, but ultimately he isn’t doing them alone. Metaphorically, and by the end of the film literally, he is doing those things with the whole world watching and taking those steps alongside him, because of him. There are no villains in The Martian. Antagonists? Sure. But no villains.
Ultimately, I don’t think that this films strength necessarily comes from a single actors performance. Instead, it comes from the shared sense of purpose between the many characters. A sense of shared urgency that escalates as the plot does, encompassing more and more people. I saw this movie with my family and when we left the theatre my sister said to me “that movie made me want to do something important.” I think that speaks to the ultimate success of the film. The Martian isn’t a horror film or a disaster movie. It’s an adventure movie. An inspirational story. Because even as Mark Watney struggles to survive and the employees back at NASA struggle to rescue him it is obvious that they are doing something important. And that important thing isn’t just saving Mark Watney. It’s what people, real people like the ones depicted in the movie, do every day: dare to explore. Dare to be the first to step places where nobody has walked before. They dare.
The Martian. Dir. Ridley Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2 Oct. 2015. Film.