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REVIEW: ‘The Martian’ A Story Equal Parts Human and Science Fiction

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You could do a lot worse than being stuck on Mars for two hours with Ridley Scott. The director certainly knows a thing or two about the dark effects of exploring the final frontier.

However, the lack of the aforementioned qualities is part of what makes his latest film, The Martian, even more surprising.

In the opening moments, a terrible accident leaves an astronaut stranded on the red planet. During a routine exploration outside of the ship, a solar storm wreaks havoc. One piece of shrapnel torpedoes into Mark Watney (Matt Damon), sending him out of sight. The storm quickly intensifies and threatens to pulverize the ship and the remaining crew. This forces the captain of the team, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to make a critical decision to abandon the planet.Photo: 20th CENTURY FOX

And thus the story of The Martian begins. Mark should be long dead, yet the blood from the shrapnel and the point of puncture kept the suit fused shut, preventing exposure to the deadly atmosphere. After awakening, he makes his way back to the station his crew operated from and immediately begins to make plans. Watney records himself as one would a video diary, chronicling his obstacles and what he will need to do in order to survive.

Speaking of obstacles, there are many. The food supply, though stocked for a team of six, will be long depleted before the potential rescue crew arrives in four years. There’s also the issue of contact; letting NASA know he is alive without any immediate tool or method of communication. This is not to mention the lack of oxygen, which he stresses will run out shortly.

It’s astonishing to watch Watney “science the shit out of this” and tap into his intuitive smarts and overall resourcefulness throughout the first half of the film.  The audience clearly knows that the cards are stacked against him, but he continually combats the odds. Prepare to be awed as the astronaut version of MacGyver creates oxygen via complex chemical compounds and grows produce on a planet that doesn’t support those processes.  

Meanwhile, NASA does eventually get wind that Mark is still alive. President Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) opts to work closely with mastermind Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a team of scientists in an effort to somehow get him home. To give away more would spoil the rest of the movie, but rest assured there are plenty of twists, as all parties battle obstacles at every turn.

The Martian is superb entertainment, but it’s far from empty entertainment. Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the source material revels in the remarkable thing that is science and uses that as a base to craft this story. Scott is known for tales of tension and terror in space, but there are no aliens with razor teeth or science fiction horror to be found here. Instead, the direction is wonderfully understated on the whole, allowing other elements to shine.

One of those elements that moves to the forefront is the human story unfolding. Damon, who is equal parts engaging and charismatic, carries a good portion of the movie effortlessly. Injecting his performance with plenty of humor (perhaps too much) the audience is completely invested in this arduous journey. Damon also creates a hero that invites empathy without manipulation. Things never get too maudlin or sappy.

By the time the third act rolls around, Scott does crank up some of that trademark intensity, and the drama swells as the climax builds (expect tears as well). The Martian may be pretty standard mainstream fare in a way, but it is equal parts intellectual and moving. This is a movie that will satisfy both science geeks and moviegoers seeking broader entertainment.

In other words, get ready for a major box office contender.


Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

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Photos: 20th Century Fox