The comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar are inevitable, so let’s get them out of the way. The latest film from director Ridley Scott features Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, and carves out a science fiction, outer space story of human survival – not against aliens – but nature. So does Interstellar. But where Nolan’s beautiful but overly ambitious, emotionally soggy, and downright messy epic failed, The Martian succeeds. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars after his crew believe him to be dead. What follows is an extremely focused 2 hours, thanks in large part to Andy Weir’s acclaimed novel and Drew Goddard’s tight screenplay, that flip flops between Watney’s harrowing predicament and NASA’s struggle on Earth to bring him home.
Unlike Interstellar, which, without divulging spoiler information, abandons its thematic concerns somewhere around the second act, The Martian stays tightly focused on one thing: the human spirit and resolve in the face of overwhelming adversity. Plenty of humor punctuates the horror of Watney’s situation, with Damon’s “every man” sensibility that he brings to most of his roles meshing perfectly with Watney’s can-do, blue collar attitude (“I’m gonna’ have to science the shit out of this,” is a line likely to go down in infamy). Although some of the humor misses its mark (the aforementioned line being one example) much of it successfully lightens the tension. And boy, is it tense. Scott doesn’t get much of a chance to exercise his horror muscles, but he certainly makes us feel the gravity of Watney’s situation, building a suspenseful and visually striking atmosphere in which the threat of death lurks large. When juxtaposed with the gorgeous “Mars” vistas, The Martian becomes truly effective. Back on Earth Scott wrings suspense from NASA’s struggles to successfully communicate with Watney and figure a out a plausible plan to bring him home safely (Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean all giving fine performances).
Ultimately, there is truly nothing wrong with The Martian. Matt Damon is perfectly cast, I liked the moments of disco music, and the last 30 minutes literally had me on the edge of my seat. That said, it never quite reaches greatness. It runs a bit long, and although Scott paces it briskly, there are scenes that do slightly drag (not near like Interstellar‘s scenes of science babble, I should add). However, it ultimately resonates with a resounding fist pump of human triumph and stands as a celebration of human ingenuity and spirit. It’s a successful, inspiring, compelling film of “man vs. nature” that never loses focus by tossing in a “man vs. man” subplot to spice things up (*cough* Interstellar *cough*). Scott and company may run right up to the cliff of melodrama, and maybe they slip a foot over once or twice, but the film is rendered with such sincerity and spirit that it doesn’t really matter – The Martian, and Ridley Scott, earns those moments.
★★★½ out of 5