The Martian is the most overall entertaining movie I’ve seen this year. It has all the right elements in all the right amounts: comedy, drama, suspense and thrills. It has a smart screenplay by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, World War Z), sharp direction by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and breathtaking cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean, Prometheus).
Even from its first note, it has a score by Harry Gregson-Williams that stands out from the bland, unnoticeable music of most movies these days. Some people will argue that the actual soundtrack is annoying, particularly the main character himself, Mark Watney (Matt Damon). That’s because the music he’s left stranded on Mars with is all Disco. I happen to like Disco, so I think he’s lucky.
If not for Watney, then for us, the Disco songs are energetic and uplifting, although light as a zero gravity astronaut. As he tries to plant and grow food in the arid red dirt, or drives a rover across vast empty surface, the songs are somewhat hopeful. When you think about it, they make total sense. I mean, what is perhaps the most significant Disco anthem? I Will Survive.
Watney is left for dead when a storm forces his crew to abandon its post and launch from the surface. For a while after that, I thought the rest of the movie would be all-Damon, all the time, as his character not only tries to survive, but to also figure out how to get off the angry planet. Perhaps halfway through, though, we return to Earth to see how NASA is dealing with the situation.
Led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the efforts of the crew at home double the suspense of the situation as they try to meet deadlines to rescue Watney before he exhausts all his resources. All their plans depend on nothing going wrong. It wouldn’t be much of a movie, and it wouldn’t be real life, either, if things didn’t go wrong, which they certainly do.
On the ground with Sanders are Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) and Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor). If the characters’ skills at space aeronautics are as developed as the actors’ are at lending their talents to supporting roles in movies, then Watney/Damon is in good hands.
What of the rest of the mission’s crew, though? Here’s the one major flaw in the story. NASA’s decision to not tell them Watney survived because it wants them to focus on returning home safely doesn’t make complete sense. Wouldn’t it have expedited his rescue to have them turn around to retrieve him, especially since that’s what ends up happening, anyway?
The movie would have been a lot shorter in that case, I guess, without a failed mission to send him supplies and the possible technical assistance of the Chinese. That’s another uplifting component of The Martian, although a tad bit manipulative: as the world is made aware of the crisis, it bands together as never before to show support and wish him home safely.
In space are the mission’s leader, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew, Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). Their reaction about losing Watney, then their unanimous commitment toward rescuing him, tells us as much as we need to know about Watney/Damon as that character/actor tells us about himself.
None of this would work if not for Damon. He’s nearly perfect in the role. His character approaches his dilemma with humor and grace, persevering throughout without ever giving up. When he finally allows himself a moment to break down, it’s deserved and heartbreaking. Damon’s performance is absolutely convincing. I hope I can be as convincing when I tell you that you must go see The Martian.