Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Drew Goddard (Screenplay), Andy Weir (Book)
Matt Damon: Mark Watley (astronaut)
Jessica Chastain: Melissa Lewis (astronaut/mission commander)
Michael Pena: Rick Martinez (astronaut)
Kate Mara: Beth Johanssen (astronaut)
Sebastian Stan: Chris Beck (astronaut)
Aksel Hennie: Alex Vogel (astronaut)
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Vincent Kapoor (NASA mission controller)
Jeff Daniels: Teddy Sanders (NASA Chief)
Sean Bean: Mitch Henderson (NASA mission controller)
The Martian is a movie with a large, ensemble cast that provides a great many familiar faces, and many less familiar actors as well, yet still allows sufficient screen time for many good performances. In many such movies, the well-known actors essentially phone in their performances and collect their checks, either because their roles are uninspiring, their bodies being necessary to attract viewers to the theaters, or because they are essentially playing themselves playing yet another role similar to all of their other roles. That’s not the case here.
There is sufficient screen time in part because the movie is 155 minutes long. One would think it would be nearly impossible to fill that amount of time on a movie with very simple plot elements, but Scott, no stranger to long science fiction films, pulls it off without a single interminable scene.
The plot is simplicity itself: forced to abort a Mars mission early by a violent and unforeseen storm, Mission Commander Melissa Lewis–played by Jessica Chastain–leaves astronaut/botanist Mark Watley–played by Matt Damon–behind, entirely reasonably believing him to be dead. It’s going to take a very long time to return to Mars. How will Watley survive?
I’m giving nothing away by observing that there are setbacks, moments of doubt, individual heroism, bureaucratic sniveling and hypocrisy, and even implausible, but hopeful, events–the Chinese volunteer to save the day, giving away a national security secret to the detriment of their own space program at a pivotal moment–and other common movie plot devices, but the movie is so well made, the performances so engaging, it all works.
The Martian will inevitably be compared–and favorably–to other notable space films, such as Apollo 13, and Gravity. All make clear just how hard, and deadly dangerous, working and traveling in space actually is. Forget alien monsters, merely spending any time in space is a death-defying act. The Martian, however, introduces the reality of the nearly incomprehensible distances inherent in space travel, such as the 12 light minutes (light minute: the distance light travels at the speed of light–186,000 miles per second–in one minute) necessary for a radio signal to reach Mars. No human being has traveled in space at even 25,000 MPH.
This is why the possibility of alien life visiting Earth is so intriguing and frightening. With our technology, we can barely mount a mission to Mars, and probably not on the scale depicted in the movie, and it takes so long to get there and back that it makes a convenient complication and peril for the plot of the movie. Any alien race that can travel to Earth must have figured out how to travel faster than light, or perhaps create or access an Einstein-Rosen Bridge (a wormhole), or perhaps, travel between dimensions. The technology necessary for such abilities would be such that we had better be very, very hopeful that the aliens were friendly indeed. Fortunately the only aliens in The Martian are from Earth.
The movie belongs to Matt Damon, who portrays Mark Watley, who happens to be a botanist, which is a good thing as it makes him uniquely capable of surviving long enough on Mars to be rescued. Any other member of the crew left there would probably have perished. Damon plays Watley as a nearly unfailingly positive and resourceful man, who experiences despair, but always overcomes it, and manages, with ultimately grim determination, to rescue himself in the nick–and this is a pun; you’ll see–of time.
Jessica Chastain is the mission commander, and while her screen time is limited, she is believable and eminently watchable. Kate Mara, even with minimal makeup a lovely actress, also has relatively little screen time, but plays her role as the mission’s computer wizard with energy and good humor.
Sebastian Stan, who plays Captain America’s boyhood buddy, Bucky Barnes, and Askel Hennie, are nearly interchangeable as resourceful and cheerfully can-do astronauts. Michael Pena, a young actor who is demonstrating a surprising range in roles as diverse as a WWII tank crewman in Fury, a hilarious, cuddly Hispanic criminal in Antman and an FBI agent in Shooter, convincingly plays a fighter jock/astronaut, and the mission’s pilot, even though he too has little screen time.
The movie has several wry and thrilling moments, such as the amazement of NASA scientists when they discover Watley, who all believed to have been killed, alive. In essence, the scene keeps shifting between Watley’s attempts to survive on Mars long enough to be rescued, and the attempts of the NASA ground crew to make rescue possible. From that moment, the NASA boss, played with sleazy believability by Jeff Daniels, and his PR flack, ooze with reptilian loathsomeness between determination to rescue Watley and determination to protect NASA’s image and funding, even at the cost of Watley’s life.
Forever dedicated to saving Watley is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor. Readers will recognize Ejiofor as the Operative in Serenity, the sole movie version–for the moment; one can hope–of Firefly. Kapoor never loses hope and fights for his people with admirable loyalty.
Watley ultimately owes his life to Sean Bean, who has a small, earthbound role, but it’s a noble part, and well played. Without Bean’s Henderson, Watley would have been toast. And without Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell, a slovenly, fatigued young astrodynamics genius who comes up with the math that makes the rescue possible, there would be no chance for the heroics and sacrifice that make the movie work.
The production values of the movie are first-rate, and computer graphics are up to contemporary standards. In some of the weightless scenes aboard the spacecraft, some of the actor’s movements appeared to be a little halting and less than smooth, but this wasn’t a significant distraction and most in a given audience probably wouldn’t notice it. Unlike many movies, the soundtrack was never so loud as to be annoying or capable of obscuring necessary dialogue.
As with Apollo 13, and to a lesser degree, Gravity, The Martian is a celebration of the nobility of the human spirit and of American ingenuity. The good guys win one, and few can help but cheer. We can use a bit of that these days.
The only mildly political note slipped into the movie is the role of the Chinese in saving the day, which obviously suggests that we should think of ourselves as Earthlings and not the citizens of nations. In the follow-on mission at the end of the movie, an obviously Chinese astronaut is briefly depicted in full spacesuit smiling at Pena’s Martinez as they blast off, followed by a chorus of “We Are The World.”
I made the part about the song up, but the sentiment is there. In reality, two Chinese rocket scientists, deciding quite on their own, as depicted in the movie, to help the Americans, which gives away an important state secret, would likely see them both shot in the back of the head and their families billed for the bullets.
This is definitely a movie that should be seen on the big screen for maximum effect. It will surely work on DVD, but when the backdrop is space and planets, the bigger the better.
It’s impossible to leave the theater without feeling better about America, and perhaps, having a bit of hope that we just may pull it all together again. If not, when Russia goes totally aggressive, we’ll likely never make it into orbit again unless private enterprise makes it possible. But for now, space is as close as the nearest cinema, and The Martian is worth the price of admission.