Matt Damon sciences the shit out of survival on Mars, while delivering some good laughs
After the release of so many similar sci-fi flicks like Gravity (2013), Mission to Mars (2000) and not to mention about the infamous Interstellar (2014) which also stars Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, it is quite a tall order to produce yet another one this soon without it being tiresome and familiar. However, co-producer and director Ridley Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gladiator, Alien) along with screenwriter Drew Gooddard (World War Z, Cabin in the Woods) and a strong cast, manage pull it off quite brilliantly.
Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel, The Martian is basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) or a crossover between Cast Away (2000) and Apollo 13 (1995), where the protagonist is left behind on the red planet due to an accident and therefore, he must find ways to stay alive for four years where NASA may set up another manned mission to Mars. But unlike in Interstellar, the people from NASA are actually attempting to save Matt Damon. Here, Damon (Bourne trilogy, Good Will Hunting) plays Mark Watney, an unattached astronaut who only has his parents care for, other than his colleagues that presumed he's dead and took off without him during a terrifying storm on Mars. Deliberately, the film does not have character development or much attempt to emotionally engage. It's a straight-forward survival sci-fi that does not try to be melodramatic at all.
Jessica Chastain (A Most Violent Year, Zero Dark Thirty) plays the courageous and always-composed leader of the crew on Mars who had to make the tough decision of leaving Watney behind. Among the crew are characters portrayed by Michael Pena (Ant-Man, End of Watch) and Kate Mara (as Beth Johanssen) whose colleagues in Fantastic Four (2015) also left someone behind in an alternate universe. Veteran actor Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber films) takes on a cold, straight-faced and intimidating role as NASA Chief Teddy Sanders, who initially may seem like he's going to be the typical self-centred asshole, but thankfully, this is not that kind of movie.
Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live) and Sean Bean (The Game of Thrones TV series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) are among the star-studded line-up playing minor roles at NASA, and although the latter's character doesn't die in this one, he still faces a bad outcome. It is a very strong star-studded cast indeed, but Damon's the one who has to practically carry the film and his performance is great although he's obviously capable to do more. Besides staying healthy and mentality stable, Damon's character has to grow crops for food on a planet that doesn't have plants at all, and also build things to try to contact NASA to inform them that he's still alive and needs to be saved soon as he may run out of oxygen, other resources, or things might simply go wrong. Fortunately, Watney specialises in botanical science, which gives him the knowledge to "science the shit out" of his situation(s).
The isolated Watney doesn't have Wilson like Tom Hanks does in Cast Away, but he keeps himself sane and verbally active through his video journal which he records in case he doesn't survive. He talks to the camera as though he's talking to clueless audiences, providing much needed explanation about what, why and how he's doing everything. At most parts, it's interestingly educational, whereas some parts are just science gibberish to me. Besides being wise with a strong will to survive, Watney also has a hilarious sense of humour, which keeps the film far from being a dull science documentary.
The narrative doesn't only follow Watney alone, it also shows how a few departments in NASA work meticulously for months in order to come up with the best possible plan to bring him home, or at least to keep him alive until they could. NASA's Vincent Kapoor, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), is one of them working out the numbers and carefully figuring the best rescue plan possible while trying find ways to communicate with Watney. Unlike in Interstellar, the numbers and plans aren't casually achieved from a short discussion and scribbles on a mini white board. Apart from Mars' 40% gravitational difference which Scott chose not to depict, this film clearly shows that it takes realism to heart. Even if it isn't 100% scientifically accurate, it seems logical enough for ordinary audiences.
The film's visuals and effects aren't exactly groundbreaking, but unlike Gravity and Interstellar, these aren't the main attractions here, and yet it delivers for the thrilling climax. The music, including classics from David Bowie and ABBA, fit perfectly into the scenes. In overall, The Martian is a realistic and refreshing take on survival-and-rescue in space that's entertaining, educational, inspirational and straightforward without too much drama or any risky twist. The film also tries its best to be politically fair -- the survivor's a guy, leader's a lady, the geniuses at NASA are black and Asian -- and getting China involved as well, who conveniently pops out of no where to lend a hand (I wonder why not Russia, or simply internationally?) when in desperate need of help.
Malaysia censorship: F-bombs are muted.
To watch in 3D? It was shown in 2D at the press screening and there's probably a reason to that. The visuals on Mars are great, but it's only the red planet and back at NASA most of the time.
Second opinion: My girlfriend liked the film too, saying that it's interesting and inspiring as well.
Verdict: A straightforward space survival-and-rescue that's realistic, subtly thrilling, funny, educational and almost drama-less.
Rating: 4 / 5
Based on: Andy Weir's 2011 novel "The Martian"
Genre: Science Fiction
Running Time: 142 minutes
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover
Malaysia Release Date: 1 October 2015
Local Distributor: 20th Century Fox Malaysia
Production: Scott Free Productions, Kinberg Genre
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