Review: 'The Martian' Inspires Hope in Overcoming the Impossible
by Alex Billington
September 11, 2015
Continuing the current trend of inspirational science fiction (Interstellar, Tomorrowland), Ridley Scott's latest offering is The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weir's bestselling novel of the same name. The story is about an astronaut, one of the first to set foot on Mars as part of a small NASA exploration team, who is deserted on the planet and must figure out a way to survive. It's a film about figuring out how to make the impossible possible. And it's a story that is meant to inspire the next generation to dream big, to let their imaginations run wild, and not let anything or any obstacle stop them from pushing on. I loved this movie.
It's hard to talk about The Martian without discussing general spoilers regarding what is happening, but then again many people have read the book anyway. Even if you haven't, you probably know how it's going to end, or at least the outcome of the situation. But that's not the point. The Martian is about the journey of getting there, the journey of survival, and how incredibly challenging mentally and physically it is to fight against the odds. To fight against the impossible, and to survive when you're not supposed to survive. This just happens to be a survival story set on Mars. It's not at all like Cast Away, as they intercut between Earth and Mars, but it does feel a bit like an Interstellar prequel, and I mean that in a good (non-derivative) way.
The film jumps right in with the team already on Mars, and then focuses on astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who survives a harsh storm while the rest of the team takes off for Earth. Watney quickly figures out what he needs to do to survive, and begins working. It's all the little details that make this film work so well - getting all the technical instruments, buttons, prop pieces, and jargon right, without having to explicitly explain what's going on. Yes, we see him figure out how to grow potatoes, but there is no extended explanation or voiceover. There are various video journals he records, and he does talk to himself, but it felt natural. And it's limited enough so that we're still focused on the bigger picture, or the full arc of the story.
The Martian runs 130 minutes, just over two hours, though I still felt like it could've been longer. Perhaps I'm just one of the few people who wouldn't mind seeing more explanation, or more footage of Watney doing nitty-gritty work, the actual tinkering and experimenting. That said, the first half of the film starts out rather slow, and it really picks up in the second half. It's not a suspense thriller, however, it's a story of hope and survival, and Ridley maintains that attitude throughout. Somewhere midway through it starts to feel like Apollo 13 (one of my favorite space films) - various ground crews on Earth are trying to figure out how to solve problems, while Watney tests the ideas on Mars some 140 million miles away. Bring on the science.
My biggest gripe was the endless parade of celebrities in every single supporting role. Sure, they're all great actors, but by the time Donald Glover shows up as the wunderkind it feels more like "hey, remember this actor!" rather than a proper introduction to a character we're supposed to instantly believe is an integral part of this story. There aren't any problems with their performances, just that so many seem cast for their celebrity status over anything. The lovely score by Harry Gregson-Williams is rarely intrusive, and often enhanced the optimistic feel of the film. While it's easy to compare some of the space scenes to Interstellar or Gravity, I appreciate that Ridley tried to differentiate himself and make it feel realistic, but still unique.
It's possible to nitpick and complain about the structure of The Martian, but at the end of it all, I can't help but say I was inspired by it and that's what matters the most. Like Interstellar before it, deep down The Martian is all about telling the kids growing up now that, yes, you can dream about going to Mars. And if you get stuck there, you can figure out a way to survive, because that's the ingenuity of humans. When we work together, or even when we're alone and determined – "where there's a will there's a way" – and we can accomplish anything, even the impossible. If everybody says it won't work, screw them, just go out and do it.
As my colleague Drew McWeeny tweeted after seeing the film: "Dear Ridley Scott, More like this, please." I agree. I love that Ridley Scott is having fun with the sci-fi genre again. His great attention to detail, and his obsession with getting the technical and visual aspects perfect, all make for a riveting cinematic experience. The landscape on Mars is absolutely stunning, especially when seen in 3D (how it was screened for me) with dust in the atmosphere completing the feeling. I just wanted more, to spend more time with Watney, and I wanted to see what wisdom he would impart after his experience. Go see The Martian and be inspired again.