REVIEW: 'The Martian'


One of the words that comes up a lot in The Martian is “sol” - a solar day. Mars has twice as many of them in a year than we do on Earth, and in the film, exploration to Mars is talked about in terms of hundreds of sols - how many sols worth of food is left, how many sols it’ll take to get somewhere. The film uses them as a punishing unit of measurement - either there’s simply not enough of them, or so many to go that it makes your head spin.

So allow me to apply the same astronomical language to the movie industry. By my count, it’s been 734 sols, or a little over two years, since Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity came out in 2013. And since then, we’ve seen three different films that have all aimed to be the most scientifically accurate, crowd-pleasing space adventures of our time: Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, and now Ridley Scott’s The Martian.

Of course, while all of them have been applauded (and teased) in some way for their depictions of space, for me, the most compelling thing they all do is try to define what our place in universe might be. Gravity suggests that space is a frontier we’ll never understand, but that it might be a way to strengthen our species and evolve. Interstellar takes that a step further, showing people who transcend dimensions and grapple head-on with the limits that time places on our exploration of the stars.

But it’s The Martian that gives us the first solid idea of how we might go about surviving in space. If Gravity and Interstellar can be seen as theoretical, philosophical waypoints on our journey to the stars, The Martian is the film that gets down and dirty with the hard science behind it all. How do you recover from sandstorms that separate you from your crew, or malfunctions that destroy your habitat? How do you use the resources around you to beat the odds? Ridley Scott’s film tries to answer these questions with tangible solutions, and draws the viewer into the character’s head to crack open the problems with him.

Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis, commander of the Ares III mission.

The catalyst for all of this is the event that opens the film. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a manned mission to Mars, at some point in the near future. When an unexpectedly strong sandstorm hits, his crewmembers (played by Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña, and Aksel Hennie) attempt to evacuate the planet, and mistakenly leave Watney behind when they believe he’s been killed by some flying debris. Watney survives, however, and he’s left to work out how to stay alive and contact NASA for rescue.

Movies can have all the cackling, world-destroying bad guys they please, but is there any more visceral topic for a film than a human vs. nature story? When it’s just a single character against the elements, we’re forced inside the hero’s head, and left to question how well we would survive in their situation. It can make for some of the most immersive storytelling - especially when it’s set in the vast loneliness of outer space.

Scott, a veteran director, seems to know this. Of course, he has some fantastic source material to draw from - the original novel by Andy Weir has pulled in heaps of critical and popular acclaim - but Scott has evidently taken note of what a good survival picture needs. Namely, there has to be triumph over the odds, moments of despair, a strong supporting cast to mount the rescue, and above all, a magnetic star who can endure whatever the film throws at him and keep cracking jokes while it happens.

For that last piece, you couldn’t do much better than Damon, whose innate movie-star qualities mean he’s ideally suited to retain his dark sense of humour in the face of certain death. That being said, Mark Watney’s unflappability is little baffling at times. Granted, it’s something Damon actually highlighted about his character in a recent interview. It’s not so much that seeing a confident hero tackle one challenge after another isn’t fun to watch, but that the film doesn’t really explain how Watney came to be that way. He enters and exits the film essentially the same, and I caught myself thinking, “Wouldn’t your average scientist - a botanist no less - be more afraid? Wouldn’t the isolation drive him mad?”

Mackenzie Davis (centre) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (right) play NASA scientists trying to get Watney home.

As much as I’d like The Martian to answer some questions about Watney’s psychology, it’s not the point of the movie. There are other films - like Duncan Jones’ Moon - that are better oriented to examine the fear of being stranded in space.

The real strength of the film is how it holds up science not only as the saviour of the characters, but as something people should be excited about. In one scene, Watney argues just how important it is to tackle problems one by one, to respond to a crisis using all the knowledge at one’s disposal. At the same time, Watney gets as jubilant about his progress as a kid playing with a chemistry set. We may not know where the character’s drive comes from, but his passion is infectious, and it’s helped in no small part by the swinging disco tunes Scott works into the soundtrack (yes, really).

If we can accept the future suggested by the film, where NASA is rolling in funding and has years of Mars missions on the docket, The Martian actually acts as an invitation to space travel. To be sure, it doesn’t shy away from showing just how risky the work can be - like in Gravity, the chances of being frozen, incinerated, asphyxiated or crushed are just as high. While there’s a time and a place for Space Odyssey-style metaphysical meditations at the movies, sometimes it’s nice to get taste of the mundane bits of outer space - even if that includes 102 preparations of Martian potatoes.

The Martian gets three and half stars out of four.

Three and a Half Stars

What did you think of Ridley Scott’s new film? Did you find it more grounded and relatable than other recent space epics?  Or was the film too limited in its scope? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!