With special effects accomplishing more outlandish settings than ever before, it’s not surprise that the ‘space opera’ or ‘space thriller’ has become a huge selling point for widespread audiences. The formula, as used in other films the past few years, is based on a few resources necessary for their success: the first is a large-scale, broad style of special effects that capture the other worlds and space setting in an awe-striking way, but also keep the settings intimate enough that they’re relatable, the second is just enough of an intellectual core that it will get adults into the theater. Studios look for the high-concept, exciting films now in the passing of such successful films that directors like Christopher Nolan, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg have created.
The Martian follows the success of two very different, but very solid space films in Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, two films that are vastly different, but have this ‘high-concept…space’ style that has been a solid leaping point for adventure films. Unlike Interstellar, The Martian is more of a survival film, an adventure that Matt Damon’s Mark Watney brings us on, unlike the vastly broad scope that Nolan’s picture took on. We’ll save the debate about which is better for later on, but just understand that this isn’t a film that is out to confound you or push boundaries. For all intensive purposes, The Martian is a fairly safe film, it’s fun, enjoyable, funny, charming, but lacks the emotional heft or strong punch of its more dramatic brethren. It’s a different style, and Ridley Scott has taken all of his normal self-seriousness, and allowed it to wash away in what is a mostly fun experience.
Based on the best-selling novel from Andy Weir, The Martian chronicles a space journey, Ares 3, that was meant for about a month’s stay on Mars to research the planet. On the mission is Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and the rest of the crew consisting of: Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie.
When a really powerful dust storm (not as bad as Mad Max: Fury Road, but close) forces the crew to do a quick evacuation, Watney is struck with a piece of debris that leaves him unable to communicate with his team. When he awakes, they have left him for dead, assuming that the lack of response from his bio-monitor is due to his untimely death. The rest of the film, after Watney wakes up is him attempting to survive, rationing out his month’s worth of boxed provisions and attempting to grow food with the help of human waste and water he was able to chemically obtain. He also must find a way to get in contact with NASA, led by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, and a random appearance by Donald Glover.
The basis of the movie is entirely predicated on problem solving, something goes wrong for Watney, so he has to fix it, whether it be with equipment or food, or anything else he’s using to survive, and that’s essentially the entire movie. It’s an ultimate survival film, reminding one of Cast Away or All is Lost. As the film develops, we become close to Mark, attempting to learn more about his methods and how he is able to survive, all leading up to the final act where the rescue is attempted. Without spoiling, that’s really it. Mars looks beautiful and rustic, but it’s never a surprise when Ridley Scott turns in a great-looking film, the question has been with his increasingly outdated story-telling. Although this film is certainly a little more safe than it needs to be, rated PG-13 and lacking a true emotional heft in the story-line, trivial details about family or Earth relationships are spared. This is not a man who begins to lose his grip on sanity, it’s an optimistic, goal-driven individual whom Matt Damon captures perfectly. He’s great in this, and is able to anchor the central role. The sets are great, and the cinematography is good enough to give Mars a unique, interesting feel. It’s not going to blow you away, but it’s a fun time at the movies.
Note: I find Interstellar to actually be the better film, because there is more dramatic heft and it is a bit further reaching. The concepts in Interstellar are just more interesting and McConaughey’s performance in the middle is anchored by complete emotion. Although Interstellar makes more mistakes and is a bit messier/preachier, this film doesn’t quite effect you in the same way. That being said, both films are better than Gravity.