This is Ridley Scott's best movie since Gladiator.
Part Apollo 13, part Cast Away, The Martian works as a survival drama and as a science fiction set piece.
Set in the not too distant future, the first manned Mars mission is imperiled by unforeseen conditions on the planet. The crew led by Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the call to pull out. However Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is accidentally left behind and forced to find a way to survive in this foreboding landscape while the people on Earth try and figure out a way to get him home.
The comparison to Apollo 13 and Cast Away are appropriate not only because of the plot and the themes, but because like those movies, The Martian is fascinating to watch. As each new problem arrises in Mark's journey, it pulls you to the edge of your seat wondering what he is going to do next. The script directly lays out his problems, but that explicitness actually works for the film by giving the audience a clear view of the challenging terrain ahead. And as Mark uses all of his science know-how to survive you feel the emboldening power of man's scientific genius.
There is no doubt that this movie is a love letter to science and all that it can help man achieve. The movie wisely makes the future look very close to the present so that we don't expect any magical Star Trek-like miracle machine to save the day. Everything in this movie is peril.
Ridley Scott gives us such wonderful visual vistas in this movie. As scary and foreboding as the landscape is, Scott makes Mars look beautiful in its own way. You can understand why human beings would travel so far to explore this vast unknown expanse. The visual design of the habitat on Mars and in space are top notch. Scott, being the master director that he is, knows how to use special effects as a tool to storytelling and not in place of story telling.
The script by Drew Goddard (based on the book by Andy Weir), is filled with smart people being witty even in the face of danger. This could have been annoying, but it does a good job relieving some of the tension. While the knot builds in your stomach, a well timed wise crack gives you just enough relief to make the thrills exciting rather than unpleasant.
The biggest drawback to the movie is the man actor: Matt Damon. In and of itself, there is not a lot wrong with his performance. But in a movie like this you need someone who can command the attention of the audience for protracted periods alone like Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Robert Redford in All is Lost. Both of those performances could spellbind you with the most minimal expressions. As good as an actor as Damon is, he just is not up to that level. Perhaps I am reading too much into him, but there is a "smirkiness" to his performance that rubbed me the wrong way. His character is supposed to be a smart alec, but there is an arrogance in how he carries himself that prevents me from connecting to him the way that I think I should. And if I do not completely and utterly connect to Watney on every level, something is in the story is lost.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Chastain does an excellent job as the guilt-ridden commander. Michael Pena is a bright spot as he delivers much of the comic relief to the movie, as he did in Ant-Man. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA who is the closest thing that this movie has to a villain. But Daniels wisely plays him as ultimately altruistic, but burdened with too much pragmatism. This film is also filled with other wonderful turns by such stars as Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover.
In a movie dedicated to science, I was grateful at how much respect was afforded religion. It is not that science and religion are opposed in reality, but in movies an artificial conflict is usually present. But every so often characters will mention God or prayer. There is a scene where Watney needs wood shavings, so he carves parts off of a crucifix. But even this act is mitigated as he address Christ on the Cross and says, "Under the circumstances, I hope you won't mind." He does not simply break down the cross and use it as fuel. He does his best to only shave off what he needs. Perhaps this is not the grandest sign of religious tolerance in film, but I was relieved that it was not much worse.
Thematically there is much to admire. Above all it is a movie about hope. The hope presented in this film is not a blind hope, presumptuous of good things. It is a hope that says that things can get better if we just give our all and hold on a little longer. It is wonderful to not only watch Watney's successes but his setbacks and failures. Every time something bad happens, we ache with him. But we also feel more emboldened as he picks himself up and keeps going.
In the end, The Martian is a movie that will make you think and make you feel. You will think about all of the technological wonders we can achieve and it will make you feel the power of the human spirit struggling to survive. The movie moves forward with no guarantees, making Mark Watney's fate uncertain throughout the film. And by the time you get into the final act you desperately hope against hope that he can make it home.
4 out of 5 stars.