The survival story is one that has been masterfully depicted in cinema time and time again. Most of these films greatly rely on the potency of the lead actor's performance, as the majority of the running time is generally spent alone with this character. While his most recent efforts haven't been quite as effective, director Ridley Scott is well-known for his ability to establish tension, characters, and a memorable story. The Martian is supposedly his return to form, although audiences will inevitably draw comparisons to Cast Away, except it's on Mars. This is a feature that won't win any points for originality, but it earns many of them back in entertainment value.
When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his fellow crew members pursue a mission on Mars, a fierce storm forces them to evacuate. After a satellite hits Watney, he's presumed dead by the remainder of the crew. Little do they realize, Watney has been stranded on the hostile planet. With few supplies, he must rely on his training and spirit to survive. His only hope is to find a way to signal to Earth that he's still alive.
Based on author Andy Weir's best-selling novel, The Martian is meant to be more than a survival mission, but also a character study. While I haven't read the book, screenwriter Drew Goddard has managed to successfully deliver a role worth caring about. Mark Watney is consistently portrayed as being sympathetic and charismatic, even when he's looking death right in the face. While they don't receive nearly as much airtime, his fellow crew members also have elements about them that make them quite likable. The character dynamics are mostly well-crafted, although it would have been more effective if we had seen this before Watney is left for dead. However, they're all equally smart, but in different fields, making each member of the crew essential to the mission.
Depending upon what you're expecting to get out of The Martian, you will either greatly appreciate the film's sense of humor or absolutely resent it. Given the serious situation of a man fighting for his life in such a hostile environment, I was hoping for something with a bit more "oomph." There's only a hint of emotion towards the end, but it's a bit too subtle. For a man with little chance for survival, he sure makes a lot of jokes. Sure, it could be part of his coping mechanism for dealing with such a dire situation, but cracking jokes shouldn't be the priority of the script. I laughed a few times, but that's not what I was hoping to get out of this experience. While consistently entertaining, The Martian's tone simply won't work for everybody.
Similar to my main issue with Interstellar, The Martian shoots itself in the foot by spending such a large portion of its running time on Earth. We're meant to feel the sense of isolation and tension that Watney is, but it's entirely destroyed by the transition to the less interesting events unfolding on Earth. Much of it acts as pointless exposition that doesn't add anything, but subtracts from every other aspect of the film. This would have been a much more intense and captivating feature if it remained on Mars, and kept close with Watney. Unfortunately, since it returns to the Earth and follows all of the typical Hollywood plot beats, The Martian loses any sense of tension. More of the film is spent trying to figure out how to save Watney, rather than displaying his fight for survival.
Unsurprisingly, Scott has brought an entire cast of A-listers to star. Matt Damon is good as Mark Watney. Even though the humor doesn't entirely work with the remainder of the picture's tone, Damon brings an enormous amount of charisma to the character. However, it would have been interesting to see him exercise some more of his dramatic muscles if the film was a bit more serious about the lead's situation. The supporting cast features solid performances from Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peņa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Some of them have more to do than others, but they all work well in delivering Goddard's script to the screen.
Even in Ridley Scott's most underwhelming projects, he still manages to make them look wonderful. Well, this holds true for The Martian, especially when we're in space or on Mars. The evolving color palette is incredibly fitting. Everything from the environments to the costumes include breathtaking details that make this film pop off the screen. The 3D is a cosmetic addition that really doesn't add much to the overall experience. There's some nice depth presented in Watney's POV shots, but otherwise, the 3D isn't worth spending the extra money on, unless you're already a huge fan of the format.
There's no denying that The Martian is Ridley Scott's best film in years, but it's no masterpiece. By employing such a light tone, it lessens the overall severity of the situations that the protagonist is forced to endure. All of the content that takes place on Earth is uninteresting, and by leaving the narrative on Mars, the film loses its sense of isolation. This is supposed to be Watny's story of survival, but what could have been a rich and other-worldly character study has been transformed into yet another typical Hollywood blockbuster. Well, at least it's an entertaining one. The Martian is enjoyable, but it could have been extraordinary. Recommended.