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Movie Review: 'The Martian'

The science-fiction epic The Martian is also an irresistible human drama.

Review by Matt Cummings

With news recently that Mars most likely has water, mankind seems more ready than ever to venture there. Thus it seems fitting that Ridley Scott's The Martian should arrive to remind us of the dangers those journeys will ultimately bring. But the result is a brilliant, smart, and well-acted affair that is also one of the best films of the year.

While on a mission to Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind after a massive storm leaves him injured and presumed dead. His commander (Jessica Chastain), and fellow crew members (Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan) are forced to abandon the mission, while Watney wakes up injured and covered in sand. Rather than giving up, he decides to survive until the next mission arrives four years later, 'sciencing the shit' out of the remains of base camp into a partial greenhouse. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and PR Director Montrose (Kirstin Wiig) learn of Watney's survival and immediately begin to plan a rescue mission. As the setbacks mount against Watney, NASA and the world join together to rescue him, regardless of the cost.

Director Ridley Scott has needed a win for a long time, producing a series of critical and financial flops that include The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings. With The Martian, he scores nothing short of a trifecta: beautiful cinematography, solid and persuasive acting, and a story that instantly locks you in. Scott has been the unqualified master of shooting the pretty scene, and this time it's Mars that's on display. There's almost a sereneness to his desert world, when of course massive storms aren't battering the crew, brought to us by longtime Scott collaborator Dariusz Wolski. This will look and sound gorgeous on the largest platforms, so consider shelling out the bucks to see in XD, RPX, or Atmos. You'll be sure to feel every ounce of sand, and wince at every piercing ray of light. It's clearly the best visual spectacle we've seen since Mad Max: Fury Road.

But beyond the pretty images and solid score by Harry Gregson-Williams, The Martian is also a terrific human drama. Space exploration is not only about the thrill of discovery, but about people trying to survive the worst which space can throw at them. Witnessing Damon take his plight as a challenge is nothing short of a celebration of the human spirit. Watney's is indomitable, even when setback continues to strike what's left of his camp. He simply gets up and sciences what he can from what's left. That's a powerful message in a time when American ingenuity and even science itself seems under constant attack.

Damon is surrounded by a stellar cast, many of whom we sadly never get to know. That's the one issue with The Martian, as the backgrounds for their motivations are never fully expressed. Still, it's great to see Daniels chewing scenery with Ejiofor and Wiig, while Chastain and the underused Mara and Stan process the news of Watney's status. At its heart, The Martian is not about the typical negative drama or ludicrous feats of ridiculousness, but a movie about smart people banding together to save one man. Things are almost collegiate as Scott and Writer Drew Goddard ditch the melodrama in exchange for solving practical problems with experience and rationalism and the result is frankly refreshing. In fact, The Martian becomes a multi-cultural effort, characterized by sharp dialogue and a willingness to extend a helping hand merely because.

It's great to see Ejiofor as the head of the mission, Donald Glover as the wiz kid whose math offers a needed push about 3/4 of the way through the movie, and Michael Pena as the guy who gets to pal around with Watney over millions of miles. Audiences might feel like all the numbers and calculations which dominate the Andy Weir novel are too much, but they're necessary if we're going to get on Watney's side. And soon we're right there with him, as Damon's personable nature gets us through long stretches of him just digging holes, modifying his habitat, and cursing through the keyboard when NASA finally reconnects with him. And even though we know how it will end, The Martian sits right next to great recent Science-Fiction films like Gravity, and Interstellar.

The Martian is one of the best films of the year, bolstered by beautiful imagery and strong performances that are a bit undercooked. But the majesty and danger of space travel is captured brilliantly by Scott and well-acted by Damon. Its almost boisterous, positive message about humanity will find Oscar love in a time when so much darkness pervades both the imagined and real landscapes. Whether The Martian can stand alongside several other recent candidates will no doubt fall to audiences to decide. But it's definitely worth your time to find out.

The Martian is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity and has a runtime of 141 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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