It’s a place no man has gone before, well, outside of movies and books at least. Now the popular Red Planet has another visitor in the new movie, “The Martian,” actor Matt Damon. But less than the adventurous notion of exploring “space, the final frontier,” this new movie remains very familiar. It’s a man vs. nature, mind over catastrophic matter kind of story. Although its smattering of science feels more like sci-fi, “The Martian” keeps its cool and controls its multi-linear narrative to make the audience cheer for the protagonist’s survival.
A routine operation goes horribly wrong within the first few minutes of “The Martian” that leaves our hero astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) left for dead in the inhospitable surface of Mars. His crew (with Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Peña among them) have no idea he survived as they embark for the long journey back to earth. Back at NASA (which consists of a sprawling team with Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor), they realize Watney’s survived and now must concoct a plan to rescue him before he runs out of supplies.
In other recent box office spectacles like “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” space remains the unkind protagonist mercilessly dispensing hardship after hardship. The characters played by Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey are racked with survivor’s guilt in their predicament. Interestingly, “The Martian” does away with that.
There isn’t much focus on the families back home as it was in those previous films, meaning there’s quite a bit less emotional baggage to deal with. Watney is justified in his anger because he is a victim of circumstance, but he doesn’t feel guilty for surviving a tragedy (no one else in his crew died like the one in “Gravity”) and by all accounts, he isn’t abandoning family for his sense of duty like in “Interstellar.” His survival is a source of pride, not shame.
— The Martian Movie (@MartianMovie) September 22, 2015
Part of the appeal of this lonely one man survival narratives is to measure up whether we would have the wherewithal to make it through to the end of the movie. Much of Watney’s resources comes from his background as a botanist, and the story weaves in those little authentic details. “The Martian” also makes room for mundane issues next to the "edge of your seat" tense scenes. In space, no can hear you scream after you run out of ketchup.
Since much of the movie is riding on Damon, he gets to throw his acting chops around with no one else in the room to play off of. The one-man show works, but doesn’t come across as self-absorbed because we toggle between the different NASA teams each working on various parts of the equation. Director Ridley Scott likes space and has played within the sci-fi sandbox to produce some of the most memorable titles in the genre like “Blade Runner,” “Alien” and “Prometheus.” Throughout much of his work, Scott retains a sense of humanity in cruel, cold worlds of gangster circles, the military or in the great unknowns above. He brings that successful touch to “The Martian” to move audiences to cheer for Watney’s rescue.
So much of “The Martian” works, it’s easy to forget what doesn’t. On the seemingly endless screen, the Red Planet looks foreboding yet inviting. That’s part of Scott’s appeal to the audience: get lost in the story and the spectacle. With a great ensemble cast and an engaging layered story, the over two hour runtime flies by. Although not integral to the story, Scott uses 3D effectively to throw around space debris and create a sense of depth to his already detailed depiction of Mars. And that is perhaps the closest I will feel comfortable with space.
"The Martian" opens in theaters Sept. 25.