I have been traveling for a few weeks and have pretty much been unable to get to the movies during that time. The forced sabbatical, however, had me eager to get back into the theater and get caught up – particularly since this is the time of year that we start seeing the ‘Oscar worthy’ films starting to come out.
With my first film back in the reviewers’ seat I must say that the bar has now been set extremely high for the rest of the year. ‘The Martian’, based on the book by Andy Weir (which I loved, by the way) and with a cast of stellar performers led by Matt Damon, is one of the best, most balanced, most engaging and most thrilling films that I have seen this year. This is truly a film with something for everyone – geeky technology and science, thrilling edge-of-your-seat action and adventure, nail-biting suspense and literate, provocative drama. If your thing is not Dartmouth Homecoming, I would urge you to get to the Nugget – or whatever your local theater might be -- and see ‘The Martian’.
Set in the not too distant future, ‘The Martian’ tells the story of a manned mission to Mars. When a sudden storm develops, the crew of six is forced to abandon their small facility on the surface of Mars and return to earth. However, the storm separates Damon’s character, Mark Whatney, from the rest of the crew and they lose contact with him and must leave him behind – presumably dead. But Whatney is not dead – yet; and he must face the possibility of starving to death or figuring out how to live in one of the most forbidding environments known. He chooses the latter, and the film becomes a series of parallel stories: of Whatney figuring out how to survive, while NASA tries to figure out how to save him, and the crew of the Mars mission dealing with their survivors’ remorse and ultimate mutiny to return to Mars for their stranded crewmate.
Director Ridley Scott is an acknowledged master of space and the future, having given us such iconic films as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Alien’ and ‘Prometheus’, so he is working in familiar territory here. And once again, Scott demonstrates a deft hand with both the settings and the prodigious cast. His Martian landscapes are dramatically beautiful and his spacecraft interiors are spare and realistic – a juxtaposition that contributes to the isolation that both Whatney and the other astronauts face as they consider the hundreds of days they must endure in space and on Mars. Even his envisioning of NASA some years in the future is thoughtful and clever – no grandiose, high-style futuristic architecture in which everything has been rebuilt. Rather, a suggestive addition of new designs among the older buildings that suggests the next 50 years are not about revolution but evolution – just as the last 50 have been.
But the settings, however brilliant, are just the backdrop for the cast. Of course, Damon is the lead dog in this pack of alpha males and females. After all, he IS the Martian of the title. And Damon does some of his best work in many years. He is the smartest everyman you have ever met: crude of language, stoic of vision, pragmatic of action and intent, and brilliant of mind as he figures out how to grow food in a place where there is no real dirt, no fertilizer, limited water and no seed stock – among many other things. It is very easy to root for Damon’s Whatney, which is critical to the underlying emotion of the film.
But Damon is not the only great actor in this cast of all stars. Jessica Chastain as the mission commander is beautifully restrained in her grief at having left a crewmember behind, and then her steely determination to get him back when she is presented with that opportunity. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean are also excellent as NASA’s Mission Commander and Crew Chief, each tasked with making difficult choices as the decision to return for Whatney or save the remaining crew present themselves. My only criticism is with Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA. Saddled with a very difficult role as ‘chief bureaucrat’, Daniels tends to be just that – a bureaucrat without a heart, and immune to the real life dramas going on around him. Perhaps that is the job and the role, but his consistent lack of empathy plays a bit false among all of the other, more nuanced, performances.
I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it is a gripping finale to an outstanding movie. This is one that will have you holding your breath at times, laughing out loud at others, shedding a tear or two in between, and rooting along with the characters in the film. In other words, as noted above, something for everyone. Bottom line: go see ‘The Martian’!