Matt Damon Looks at Earth with Envious Eyes

Inspiring and playful, The Martian is the least cynical of Hollywood’s space epics. Trapped astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) bright demeanor is a pleasure. The film has no sniveling antagonists either. Sacrificed from the Andy Weir source novel is a bevy of technical challenges for Watney, leading to a condensed adventure which still has splashes of danger – all serenaded by the ’70s greatest hits.

Much is expected of Damon whose role is lonely and as isolated any. Botanist Watney is carefully developed through video logs, taken on a variety of days on his survivalist journey. Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer Darisz Wolski prove clever, matching the movement of the lead character who was blasted by debris during a Martian storm and thought to be dead by his crew. Personal cameras stay mobile, able to follow Watney’s trek inside of a livable habitat as well as in various rovers.

Of course the feature is visually arresting. Mars is stunning on camera. Scale assists in selling the preposterous scenario – Watney is but a blip on NASA’s circling satellite images. Cinematography only helps further in keeping him in scale.


Martian has work to do, setting out to develop a slew of characters. This is not Cast Away on Mars. There’s no Wilson. NASA’s crew of hyper intelligent science teams, PR people, and leaders balloon the cast. Sub in the roster who accidentally left Watney and Martian becomes stuffed – without feeling so. Book-to-screen work finds time for relationships and motivations without negative consequences.

It’s a story of what should be (unification, sacrifice) rather than what could be (disaster, personal gain).

Broader, Martian displays a perseverance and togetherness. Dodging the possibility of being insufferable and negative, Martian becomes a story of American ingenuity and international togetherness. Corny, yes, but with Watney’s lead, Martian feeds off his energy. It’s a story of what should be (unification, sacrifice) rather than what could be (disaster, personal gain). There’s danger. Even in shrunken cinematic form, Watney’s planetary stay is most unpleasant. Yet, the film is always moving toward a united goal.

Maybe Martian is too breezy. Maybe it’s too brisk. Maybe Watney is too likeable and therein is why his troubles are truncated. Why see him suffer any more than is needed? On-screen text jumps audiences a staggering seven months, keeping the material brisk if chopped into tinier pieces. By that point, character establishment has created a man who will persevere. He’s a fighter. No one could believe otherwise, although his sublime MacGyver (in space!) skills are discarded in this mild fumbling of the material. He just uses duct tape now.


What is important is Watney’s skill and Watney’s will. Martian keeps those. The film makes space interesting even if like any fiction it must fudge the particulars. Watney is the best teacher. All of the expository explanations which build the aura of danger also construct plausible science about the complexity and unknowns of interstellar travel. Studios are producing a bevy of these as the space movie trend begins to spike again – from the fiction-y science of Interstellar to the science-y fiction of Gravity – hopefully sparking a needed real world resurgence in exploration and discovery.

Under the cover of a thriller, Martian becomes an advertisement for NASA. It’s the product placement of the decade. In this case, Martian earns a pass. Such a film creates a genuine excitement, showcasing how any community will bond over the most human of goals: Living, or rather, helping someone else to continue living.

Being in their fictional circle creates a sense of belonging. No wonder Watney wants to come back, all without a hint of false sentimentality. He is never seen crying into a camera for his newborn or his wife. He has neither. Instead, it all comes back to the people who had to abandon Watney on Mars. They’re his peers, his connection. His home. Watching him get there is a blast. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Movie]


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