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The Martian (2015): A Review

With Alien and Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott came of age, giving us visions of space and the future that were nightmarish and bleak, respectively. Now, over thirty years later, Scott has returned to the realm of sci-fi, and instead delivered us a vision of adventure, human ingenuity, and most importantly – hope. This is The Martian.

Based off of the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, The Martian takes place in the not-too-distant future. A group of NASA astronauts, lead by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), are part of a mission to Mars – the Ares III. This mission includes living on the surface of Mars for an extended period of time, and collecting samples of the red planet’s surface. During their mission, a strong sandstorm arrives – causing the crew of the Ares III to need to abandon the planet early – and in the chaos and confusion of the storm, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is killed. The surviving five members of the mission set course for a return to Earth, traumatized by the loss of their friend and cohort.

The twist? Mark didn’t actually die. And now, he has to find a way to keep living.

A tale of survival and adventure, a’la Robinson Crusoe or the Tom Hanks favorite Cast Away, we see Watney do his best to survive on the planet Mars – doing everything from learning how to repurpose their Mars base as a greenhouse (to grow food), to discovering how to re-establish contact with NASA back on Earth. It’s an engrossing, science filled romp, which keeps the tone light, as Watney, a natural smart-ass, keeps a video journal of his experience on Mars – ultimately to keep himself sane (and keep the audience entertained). His story is then quickly juxtaposed with the NASA – and eventual worldwide – response to his survival on Earth, and the shocked response of his fellow Ares III crew members. The film is equal parts small and large scale, hilarious and serious, adventure filled and introspective. It also probably has the most appropriate use of a PG–13 “fuck” ever.

The script by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) is quick-witted, smart and engaging, giving Ridley Scott an incredible canvas to build upon. Unlike 2012’s Prometheus, The Martian gives Scott a clear story to work with, and he wears the optimistic glow of the story well. Shot in the Wadi Rum in Jordan, the movie is beautifully photographed by Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean), and enhanced with just enough CGI to give it the proper “other worldly” feel.

The cast is an absolute murderer’s row of actors. Anchored by Matt Damon, whose natural charisma is an incredible asset in what is at times a one-man show, the cast shines all around, including Jeff Daniels (using his The Newsroom gravitas as the director of NASA), 12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA Mission Director, Kristen Wiig almost going against type as the head of NASA PR, Donald Glover (Community) as a quirky astronomer, and the crew of the Ares III, which includes the aforementioned Chastain, Tumblr favorite Sebastian Stan, House of Cards’ Kate Mara, the always enjoyable Michael Peña, and Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie. I’d be remiss if I didn’t make special mention of Benedict Wong, primarily known for his British television work, who is absolutely fantastic as the put-on-upon head of the JPL, and Sean Bean, who has probably the most self-referential scene of his career. Really, if there was any complaint for me, it would be the underuse of Halt And Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis as Mission Control satellite planner Mindy Park. She’s a captivating presence on the show, and given the character’s importance within the source material, it was a shame to see the role lessened.

The Martian completes a psuedo-trilogy of space exploration films the past few Falls at the cinema. 2013 brought us the Capital-I-Intense Gravity, 2014 the Capital-I-Important Interstellar (which also gave us Matt Damon stranded in space), and this would be the Capital-I-Intelligent installment. True to the novel, The Martian is about process and effort, trial and error, and the scientific process. But for a book that was very jargon heavy, the prose came across even better in translation, as the efforts of Watney to keep hope (and himself) alive on Mars are streamlined for audience understanding and appeal. Fans of the book will notice that certain third act elements were cut, and ultimately make the film more palpable, making for a great adaptation.

The Martian supposes a world with greater interest in space exploration, one where the world’s governments can work together, and most importantly, proper planning, hard work, and intelligence can trump any adversity. It’s an incredibly optimistic vision from a director, whom at times, has brought us some of the bleakest. And as an adventure light years away from home, The Martian is a captivating cinema experience, and one of the year’s – if not the decade’s – best films.

In short, The Martian is why I love movies. Highest possible recommendation.

The Martian is in theaters now, and is available for pre-order via iTunes.