Movie review: ‘The Martian’

Director Ridley Scott thought big with “The Martian.” After all, Tom Hanks was “Cast Away” on an uninhabited island in the Pacific, while Scott left Matt Damon left behind on another planet. “The Martian” has all the hallmarks of a winner by Scott, who also directed sci-fi masterpieces “Alien” and “Blade Runner” (we’ll forgive him for subjecting us to the steaming pile of feces that is “Thelma and Louise” – it’s so bad that I won’t give you the link). “The Martian” has another notable feature, too: it is slow-paced. But that isn’t bad. So, you’ll need to sit back and be ready for a great story told well, but without second-by-second action.

‘The Martian’
(2015; 144 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges and Kristen Wiig)

MATT DAMON’S A LONG WAY FROM HOME

With a running time of 2 hours 24 minutes, “The Martian” is an overly long film. However, it is an excellent film worthy of all seven Oscar nominations (including best film and best actor for Matt Damon). Still, it didn’t deserve to win – although Damon was close – because it is just a bit too long. It did win a Golden Globe as best comedy/musical, but there can be no logical or at least rational explanation of why that category.

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Director and sci-fi master Ridley Scott does a tremendous job of storytelling in film with a story taken from a novel of the same name and, despite being a bit too long, “The Martian’s” biggest sin is misguided political correctness of China giving the U.S. a hand. China, through its classified technology (admitting it has something it has never announced), becomes a hero in helping our astronauts. Yeah, that’s likely to happen in the next generation or so – and it is a big disappointment realizing that China or a state-sponsored company was a financial backer for “The Martian” (otherwise why put in this nonsensical piece of obvious propaganda?).

Anyway, Scott knows that to be a good movie you don’t have to have dazzling special effects virtually every second of screen time. What obviously he didn’t realize is that “The Martian” is 24 minutes too long. He needed to bring it in more quickly and maybe, with a streamlined ending, he might have snagged a couple of Oscars.

In any case, “The Martian” is wonderful storytelling and filmmaking. In short, a NASA astronaut is left behind on Mars after suffering what his fellow crew members believed was a fatal injury during a storm on Mars during their exploratory mission. The rest of the crew had to abort the mission when the spacecraft that would take them safely back to their mother ship was threatened. They could not return to Mars after that.

Of course Damon was not killed and he then begins an odyssey first to stay alive; then to stay alive until a rescue mission could arrive four years later; and ultimately to travel nearly 2,000 miles across the arid Martian landscape to attempt his ultimate leaving of the planet. Along the way he becomes a farmer, a settler and a pirate. It’s all done well and intelligently.

Damon’s life on Mars is a narration by him and his attempts first to grow food and then how he harnessed his available technology (even traveling to unearth – unMars? – a robot rover previously sent to the planet). All of this is done very well and even some of the more technical aspects appear logical and are adequately explained in plain language.

Other than the aforementioned idiocy of the China subplot, the action on earth is done very well by a solid supporting cast – especially by Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast and their work:

  • Oscar winner (not for this one, but nominated here) Damon does a great job as “Mark Watney.” He maintains his intensity throughout the film and is effective as the lost-soul astronaut. Damon’s as good here as Tom Hanks was in “Cast Away,” but he did have the advantage of talking into a video system recording his image and words. Damon just has a great affability and likability about him and whatever character he’s playing from “Jason Bourne” to the two films that I like him best: the poker movie “Rounders” (click here for my review) and director Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (click here for my review). He was also nominated for acting awards in “Good Will Hunting” and “Invictus.”
  • Four-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Bridges is smooth as NASA director “Teddy Sanders.” He does a very nice job of conveying the character as the head of the space agency and how that executive would most likely handle such a situation (although he’s a bit too human). I truly enjoyed Bridges in a pair of diverse films – the great comedy “Dumb & Dumber” with Jim Carrey and as part of the ensemble that made up “2 Days in the Valley” (click here for my review).
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Wiig does a solid job as NASA public relations director “Annie Montrose.” Like Bridges, she conveys her character with aplomb but in the end you probably would have liked to have seen a bit more meat to her character. I certainly liked Wiig best as “Maggie Mayhem” in “Whip It” (click here for my review) and she received her nomination for best screenplay for “Bridesmaids.”
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Chiwetel Ejiofor plays “Vincent Kapoor” and is the space mission’s director. He brings wonderful conviction to his character and turns in a top-of-resume performance here. He was nominated for “12 Years a Slave.”
  • Benedict Wong plays “Bruce Ng,” a Jet Propulsion Laboratory executive. Ng is so effective that it wouldn’t take much to imagine that he is a real JPL director who was signed on to play himself. Ng has also been in “Spy Game” and “Grow Your Own.”

There is a raft of excellent supporting actors, including veteran Sean Bean and the Mackenzie Davis (a relative newcomer to Hollywood), who all do really great work making sure the foundation of the film is solid, but I don’t have enough time to drill down and examine each of them – and this includes the crew members of the spaceship that brought Damon to Mars.

I do truly enjoy great slow-paced films. After all, who doesn’t like “Chariots of Fire” or, if you need a recommendation of a forgotten great, “Local Hero” (click here for my review). Of course both of those don’t have a sci-fi component and their pace is glacial compared to “The Martian,” but slow-paced doesn’t always mean a bad film.

The Martian” was the No. 8 film at U.S. theaters for 2015 with $228.4 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. There’s no surprise for 2015 as to the No. 1 film. It was “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” with nearly a billion dollars (actually $936.6 million) and the other two films I’ve reviewed from the year were “The Intern” with Robert De Niro (click here for my review) and my favorite of 2015: “Jurassic World,” which is the fourth film in that franchise – click here for my review – and was second to “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” with $652.2 million. Who’d have ever thought a film grossing $652 million would come in second?

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Cate Blanchett was set to play mission commander “Melissa Lewis,” but I’m glad it went to Jessica Chastain because of a scheduling conflict. Cate’s OK, but Chastain did a job I don’t believe Blanchett could have achieved.
  • The exteriors were shot in Jordan.
  • A potato farm field was planted at the studio with potatoes in differing stages of growth for the different time frames in the film.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The writer of the novel, Andy Weir, first published his book for free on his own blog for fun. Then people asked him to put it in a downloadable form, then to put it on Amazon for Kindle download which he did at the then minimum price of $0.99.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “Andy Weir (writer) stated that the only moment from the book he was disappointed to not see used in the final film, was when Mark Watney makes an audio log that goes “How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense” after Teddy Sanders wondered what Watney was thinking about up on Mars. It can be found in the extra content on the Blu-ray release.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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