Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain are back in the futuristic catastrophe space movie game (they both appeared in “Interstellar” with Matthew McConaughey last year!). This time, they’re hitting the screen in “The Martian” (with pretty good timing, too, considering the recent findings of water on Mars), based on the novel by Andy Weir.
The movie starts with a blink-and-it’s-gone scene of the Ares III Mars exploration team going about their not-so-ordinary daily tasks: soil sample collection, computer inspection and equipment upkeep. Within two minutes of the opening credits, the team is struck by a mysterious Mars sandstorm and decides to abort the mission. On their way to their escape craft, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is whipped away by the wind and cut off from communication. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides Watney is probably dead and the crew needs to leave. They lift off to safety, all desperately hoping that they didn’t just make the wrong decision.
But Watney is not dead, just unconscious and wounded. He wakes up with a gasp and slowly realizes his situation: he’s all alone, injured by a piece of debris impaling his abdomen. He waddles back to mission headquarters, cuts off his shirt, and breathes deeply as he performs surgery on himself to pull out the debris. He staples himself closed, takes a pause, and exclaims, “Fuck!” And so his journey of survival, solitude and clever reasoning begins.
The movie follows two storylines: that of Watney as he struggles to survive, and that of his colleagues at NASA trying to find a way to get him back safely. The NASA team is played by an outstanding Earth-bound supporting cast, led by a hilariously sarcastic Mars mission director (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a young and grungy astrodynamicist (Donald Glover, a.k.a. Childish Gambino), and a cheerful NASA PR cover-up pro (Kristen Wiig). We watch Watney through video logs, security cameras and filmed scenes as he struggles to keep himself sane and healthy, using his ‘botany powers’ to keep up his quickly diminishing supply of water and food, and eventually having to focus on a way to contact NASA and get back home.
You soon realize this film will actually make you laugh—a lot. Matt Damon is truly hilarious as an arrogant, smart-aleck genius, determined to “not die here” and to “science the sh– out of this.” He calls himself the “colonizer of Mars,” a “space pirate” and “the greatest botanist on this planet”—all true and all somewhat self-aggrandizing. His brilliantly-placed lines made the entire theater burst out in belly laughter, and he is clearly using his humor to emotionally survive his dire situation. However, while it may be part of the character’s coping strategy, he does not show much concern for his family, friends and other loved ones back on Earth, creating a lack of depth in emotion and character.
As the story unfolds, you never realize how long the film is—almost two and a half hours—nor do you feel lost in what is going on. The acting is wonderful, and Matt Damon is backed up by equally noteworthy performances. Jessica Chastain’s commander especially is equal parts badass and vulnerable, complicated and irresistible. None of the visuals corrupt the raw and emotional performances, with just the right amount of broad-scoping Mars landscapes, spatial views of Earth, and explosions.
The movie has an impressive though not overwhelming score, lending to the extraterrestrial atmosphere and the intensity of emotion. Even more remarkable and unexpected is the soundtrack, with Watney left to listen to a comprehensive list of cheesy ’80s disco hits (including David Bowie, ABBA and Donna Summer), which helped make a delightful running gag against the commander.
So how does “The Martian” compare to the two most recent space films, “Gravity” and “Interstellar”? “The Martian” takes the suspense, near-death experiences, captivating science, intense close-ups and stunning spacescapes of the classic sci-fi film and makes space disaster funny and relatable without forgetting the necessary tear-jerk and hold-your-breath moments. It leaves you with fewer things to digest than “Interstellar” and is much less of a cliff-hanger than “Gravity.”
“The Martian” was produced by Aditya Sood PO ’97, president of Genre Films, so of course there was a reference to a Pomona obsession when the NASA team has 47 days to complete the emergency spacecraft that launches to Mars.
“The Martian” is definitely worth the money, the two-and-a-half hours and the overcrowded theaters—I am convinced it will be one of the biggest hits of 2015. It has the script, the visual appeal, the performances and the directorial prowess to be a strong contender in the Oscar cycle. As Peter Travers from Rolling Stone succinctly said, “You won’t find a space epic that’s more fun to geek out at than ‘The Martian.’”