The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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My Favorite

20th Century Fox
 144 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Ridley Scott 
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain

When I was in elementary school, we would regularly watch educational movies in class, and the most popular of those were the survival films. These movies were made by the U.S. Air Force and designed as training films for pilots in the event they crashed in hostile territory such as the Arctic, a desert, or at sea. The film would follow the downed pilot as he foraged for food, looked for shelter, and found ways to build fires or otherwise signal rescue craft. I had pretty much forgotten about those survival training films for years, until I saw the ultimate survival film of all time last week, Ridley Scott’s The Martian.


This time around, it’s not an Air Force pilot in need of rescue but an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who’s been left behind while on a Mars mission. Mark and the other members of his team have set up shop on the Martian surface, living in a number of huts and conducting various scientific experiments. When a sudden storm hits. Mark is injured by flying debris and his communication and monitoring devices are broken. The other crew members assume he is dead and, because the storm threatens their landing craft, call off the rest of the mission. After they leave, however, a very much alive Mark wakes up and makes his way back to the shelter.


Since Mark is a scientist, he is able to take stock of his surroundings and begin the laborious process of making his supplies last long enough to allow himself to be rescued. This involves producing water from hydrogen and oxygen gas, growing potatoes in the Martian soil (using human poop for fertilizer) and figuring out a way to communicate with NASA officials back on Earth. And, since Mark is also Matt Damon, all the while he’s doing this, he’s displaying his usual Damonic all-American charm, keeping up his spirits and sense of humor as he makes a series of videos for posterity (or the next crew to arrive).


The Martian is an old fashioned type of science fiction movie, one in which the word “science” actually has meaning. Unlike popular space sagas like Star Trek and Star Wars, interplanetary travel isn’t a given, made simple by some nebulous concept with a name like “warp speed” or “hyperdrive.” Instead, director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard root The Martian solidly in the real scientific world of today, with our current state-of-the-art technology, but nothing further. In that setting, the movie, as Mark himself outlines in one of his monologues, essentially becomes a series of scientific problems. While Mark wrestles with the problems of providing food and water and figuring out how to move around on the Martian surface, NASA scientists try to work out the logistics of how to rescue him.


The biggest enemy everyone faces is time. As the movie makes clear, it takes time to launch a rescue ship, and the Earth and Mars are in different orbits, so that a ship would have to be launched within a particular window to minimize travel time. On the other hand, Mark has to keep track of how much his food and other supplies will last. Many of the decisions made in the movie boil down to how many days are gained or lost by particular actions.


The Martian thus becomes a “suspense” movie in which the action is spread over a number of months. From the start of the movie until the earliest a rescue mission can reach Mark is a period of about two years in real time. The audience is always aware of this fact, but Ridley Scott makes the action feel much more compressed, thanks to a snappy pace and avoiding silly conventions like continually showing titles indicating the passage of a particular number of days.


I’ll be frank and admit that I don’t know how scientifically accurate The Martian is or how plausible its rescue scenarios are. It certainly sounds and feels realistic, but it’s more of an engineering movie like Apollo 13 than a movie about advanced physics like Interstellar (which, ironically, also featured Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on a distant planet). The script goes into enough detail in describing the various options available to the scientists to make the dilemmas and their thought processes comprehensible.


Ridley Scott deftly pulls off a seemingly impossible feat here. He has taken events that haven’t happened and may never happen at any time in the foreseeable future and made viewers feel almost as if they are watching a docudrama of a fait accompli. If we overlook the fact that there isn’t a single actual fact in The Martian, it seems almost as much of a real life drama as Apollo 13 was. Scott does this by concentrating on the action and avoiding unnecessary melodrama.


Scott gets a lot of help in this regard from Matt Damon, in a perfect role, and from the actors playing the other astronauts, including Jessica Chastain as the mission commander. The other astronauts have little screen time, but they make it count, especially Chastain, whose feelings of guilt when she learns what she has done provide some of the most emotional moments in the movie. By spending relatively little but highly effective time with the crew, Scott has more time to show the action.


Scott spends much more time covering the rescue efforts on earth, much of it bureaucratic haggling. Normally, this could be a kiss of death for a film, but here, the high stakes make it compelling. Jeff Daniels as Teddy Sears, the director of NASA, and Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, the chief astronaut, make most of the film’s points in their arguments with one another. Plus, Drew Goddard’s script has a good deal of humor in it, which always lightens the mood.


But the actor who really makes the movie work is Matt Damon. He’s actually playing the audience’s conception of Matt Damon the actor: easy going, bright, clever, witty, optimistic, and, above all, likable. He turns what could be dull but necessary exposition into witty home videos, and, most of all, invests the audience fully in his rescue. When Sears and Henderson argue about whether the cost of bringing him home is worth it, it’s clear what the answer will be.


The Martian may be a familiar movie, but it seems extremely fresh, mostly because it’s been such a long time since someone has combined the elements of this type of movie as well as Scott has. He takes a cleverly written, highly serviceable script, and combines it with some great effects work and photography and solid acting, and the end result is as technically proficient and effective a crowd pleaser as I’ve seen in a long time. Other directors may make better serious movies this year, but I doubt they will make one that’s better as sheer entertainment.

Read other reviews of The Martian:


The Martian (2015) on IMDb