This seems well-liked.
Two things: 1) This is the kind of thing -- decently serious, original -- that COULD nab a best picture slot in the up-to-ten era, despite its commercial orientation. 2) It'll be interesting to see if Oscar voters stick to their recent "originals over franchises" preference in the visual effects category and go for this over the sure-to-be-eyepopping new Star Wars movie.
Chief International Film Critic @AskDebruge
With ideas like cryogenic sleep and warp speed, the movies have a tendency to make space travel look easy. Not Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an enthralling and rigorously realistic outer-space survival story in which Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist stranded on the Red Planet after a sandstorm forces his crewmates to abort mission. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon’s “right stuff” hero has to get by on his own wits and “science the sh–” out of his predicament. It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s “science fact” adaptation. Considering that the United States hasn’t launched a manned space mission since 2011, “The Martian” should do far more than just make Fox a ton of money; it could rekindle interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of future astronauts.
As Mark Watney, Damon serves as the poster boy for these future space travelers, a good-humored, all-American team player who’s just 18 “sols” (or Martian days) into his mission when he is impaled by a communications antenna and left for dead by his colleagues during a forced evacuation. Watney is the lowest-ranking member of his team and the least equipped to handle such a situation — with one notable caveat: As a botany specialist, his assignment was to investigate whether plants could grow in an environment without fertilizer or water — and now, with only enough food to last 400 sols and the next planned mission nearly four years away, Watney’s ability to pull off that tall order will determine whether he lives or dies. Actually, there are a thousand different real-world things that could kill him, but it’s clear he won’t survive unless he manages to “cultivate” Mars.
Before “Gravity,” studio executives might have thought twice before greenlighting such a big-budget space drama (surely such Mars-set disappointments as “Red Planet,” “John Carter” and “Mission to Mars” must give them pause), and while a good portion of “The Martian’s” audience will surely be hoping for a repeat of Sandra Bullock’s white-knuckle experience, Scott has a different agenda altogether. After all, we’re talking about the man responsible for the second and third most influential sci-fi movies of all time (after “Star Wars”), and the director of such iconic pics as “Alien” and “Blade Runner” has better things to do than repeat himself — or anyone else, for that matter.
“The Martian” innovates once again, this time moving in the direction of the plausible to present the most realistic version Scott and his team can manage of a manned mission to Mars (with a few well-chosen stylistic flourishes, courtesy of costume designer Janty Yates). Though the film proves reasonably suspenseful in parts, Scott isn’t trying to generate the same realtime intensity as “Gravity” (in fact, “The Martian” takes place over nearly two years, demanding an altogether different pace), nor does he distract himself with attempting to pioneer the field of 3D filmmaking (though he does incorporate the technology in effective, yet nondistracting ways).
At its most basic, “The Martian” serves as an epic homage to the nerd — a deferential widescreen celebration of human intelligence in a genre that so often hinges on speed, braun or sheer Midochlorian levels (thanks for nothing, George Lucas). And while Watney may be stranded by himself on Mars, he’s anything but alone, with the best minds on earth working overtime to bring him home — if only he can figure out how to communicate with the good folks at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Nothing brings the people of this planet together quite like space travel, and Scott manages to alternate between the immediate Reader’s Digest appeal of Watney’s sol-to-sol survival on Mars with the unifying impact his potential rescue has back on earth, where TV viewers follow every development and the Chinese even declassify a secret space program in order to help.
With no acid-dripping extra-terrestrials to menace him on Mars and no James Cameron-style greedy corporate villains ready to sacrifice him on earth (just Jeff Daniels, still in “The Newsroom” mode, as a pragmatic NASA honocho forced to make some tough calls), “The Martian” feels downright, well, Martian compared to the vast majority of space-travel dramas. It’s not without precedent, however. The sleek, science-friendly elegance of Arthur Max’s production design recalls “Silent Running” (another sci-fi parable with a botanist hero), its running series of logistical challenges echoes Arthur C. Clarke sequel “2010” and the highly visual, high-stakes decision making suggests Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” But instead of trying to scare people off space travel, Scott and company recombine these elements in hopes of inspiring a generation for whom the moon landing and shuttle missions are now ancient history, practically nostalgia, while the American space program sits mothballed.
While not propaganda per se, the film seeks to galvanize (rather than terrorize) those who might shape the future. That was the hollow promise “Tomorrowland” offered this past summer, featuring a feel-good epilogue in which its white heroes recruited a diverse range of talented young people around the world. But instead of waiting for that time to come, “The Martian” puts man’s potential for problem solving to to the test today, assembling a gender-balanced, multi-culti cast and combining their brightest ideas to save Damon’s character. This is Private Ryan we’re talking about, after all.
Scott recycles some of his cast (including mission commander Jessica Chastain) from Christopher Nolan’s eye-crossing “Interstellar,” in which Damon played an astronaut with far more sinister intentions, and though “The Martian” can be even more densely geek-speak in places, Goddard’s script manages to parse the technical jargon for lay viewers. As Michael Pena puts it, “But like in English, what would that be?” after his colleagues hit him with one of their more technical solutions. (Chastain and Pena share the return vessel with Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and a half-serious Kristen Wiig brainstorm from the ground.)
Weir did his research when writing the novel, basing each of Watney’s MacGyver-like solutions (using recycled human waste to fertilize Thanksgiving potatoes, burning hydrazine rocket fuel to create water, etc.), as well as their subsequent setbacks (killer Martian frost, explosive chemical reactions), on scenarios that could reasonably arise on Mars. Scott carries that scrupulous adherence to science forward on the film, eschewing a more predictable suspense-movie score from composer Harry Gregson-Williams in favor of the sort of mellow musical chain-reaction heard in natural-science docs and Discovery Channel reality shows.
The idea here is to capitalize on the excitement of human ingenuity, the musical metaphor for which can be heard percolating behind the team’s every breakthrough— and they are a team. Whereas films prefer to cast heroism as the doing of a single rebellious soul, this one does justice to the idea (hammy when Michael Bay tries to show it, a la “Armageddon”) that truly amazing feats depend on the collaboration of exceptional people. In “The Martian,” we identify with Damon, but he couldn’t do it without the planet’s best behind him.
Rather than giving Watney a Wilson volleyball or HAL-like supercomputer to chat with, Goddard relies on another of the book’s “Robinson Crusoe”-like touches (Daniel Dafoe’s novel was written in the character’s voice and fooled early readers as a faux travelogue), giving him amusing “HAB journal” entries — or video diaries — in which to document his own progress. Though Watney has already proven his resourcefulness by doctoring his own puncture wound, his recordings serve the dual purpose of giving him a chance to explain complicated science ideas while endearing us to Damon’s naturally charismatic personality. The poor guy does his best to keep his mind active on Mars, but with only a collection of disco hits and “Happy Days” episodes to simulate human company, even the sanest astronaut would start to go a little stir crazy — although, admittedly, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” has seldom seemed a more appropriate anthem.
By Todd McCarthy
The Bottom Line
Ridley back in (a good) space.
Ridley Scott goes back to the future, a familiar destination for him, and returns in fine shape in The Martian. Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. Constantly absorbing rather than outright exciting, this major autumn Fox release should generate muscular business worldwide.
Scott has famously been up in space before, thrillingly in Alien, far less so in Prometheus (a sequel to which he is currently preparing). This time, he’s telling a survival story, pure and simple, of an American astronaut, thought to be dead, who’s left behind on Mars when an enormous storm compels his five fellow crew members to hastily cut short their extra-planetary visit. It’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but without the monkey and aliens.
When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) regains consciousness after having been impaled by an errant antenna and knocked out, he quickly assesses the situation: He’s millions of miles from home and, based on the food supply, concludes that he’s got a month to live. But he’s by nature a can-do, optimistic kind of guy, a botanist by profession possessed of a sardonic, self-deprecating sense of humor, and decides that he has no intention of dying, even though the next Mars mission from home isn’t due to arrive for another four years.
Most of the early-going is devoted to the man making calculations as to how he can maximize his time on the arid planet, beginning by growing more potatoes from the ones he’s got (in part by using his own home-made manure). Living in the relatively spacious quarters he and his colleagues set up, Mark cannibalizes everything he can, carefully apportions his rations and settles in for the long term; at moments, the biggest threat to his sanity is the exclusive collection of ‘70s disco music left behind by one of his former astronauts.
The claustrophobia and solitariness of Mark’s situation is shortly broken up by events back on Earth. After Mark’s tragedy has been duly mourned by the public, a sharp-eyed NASA technician notices ground movement in her surveillance of the Martian surface that could only be Mark moving around. Communication is duly re-established, which ignites both elation at his survival and frantic assessments of what it would take, and cost, to launch a rescue mission.
Weir’s book is heavy with technical assessments of food and oxygen supplies, mechanical capabilities, flight duration and the physics of inter-planetary travel. Screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z, Cloverfield) has respected all these details while whittling them down to manageable and comprehensible levels. Officials at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (represented by a lively and individualistic cast including Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover) do everything they can to develop a feasible rescue plan and are ultimately helped out by a surprising foreign partner.
But ultimately it comes down to the willingness of Mark’s astronaut colleagues (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) to place themselves at great risk by attempting a long-shot rescue attempt, a decision that raises the provocative moral dilemma of whether it’s correct to put five lives at great risk for the remote reward of saving one life.
Scott does generate a degree of suspense in this climactic stretch, but the film’s overall tone is dominated by the characters’ collegial humor, mutual respect among professionals and smart people being tested by an unprecedented challenge. The director and screenwriter downplay the conventional melodrama inherent in the situation in favor of emphasizing how practical problems should be addressed with rational responses rather than hysteria, knee-jerk patriotism or selfish expedience.
The result is an uncustomarily cheery and upbeat film from Scott, a number of whose works range from the despairing (Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down) to the nihilistic (Hannibal, The Counselor). There is also a sense that the meticulous sense of resourcefulness, the upbeat get-the-job-done attitude exemplified by Mark is very much akin to the director’s own, to the point that the optimistic lining common to both the novel and the film seems at one with the story itself and not an artificial, Hollywood-induced spin.
In significant measure due to his character’s mordant humor, which Goddard has slightly amplified from the book, Damon provides comfortable company during the long stretches when he’s onscreen alone, and the actor’s physicality makes Mark’s capability entirely credible. The scenes back on Earth provide a hectic, densely populated counterweight to the Martian aridity, which is magnificently represented by exteriors shot in the vicinity of Wadi Rum in Jordan, not far from where great stretches of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.
Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski turns the neat trick of providing the film with a fundamental documentary reality while also making a thing of great beauty. Extra attentiveness is amply on display in all creative departments.
By John Hazelton
Dir: Ridley Scott. US. 2015. 130mins
Visually spectacular and consistently entertaining, Ridley Scott’s space rescue procedural The Martian suffers only from a failure to hit its emotional beats with the amount of force and feeling usually required to make this kind of life-and-death adventure really take off. It’s a crowd-pleaser for sure; but maybe not quite enough of one – even with a perfectly cast Matt Damon as a plucky astronaut stranded on the Red Planet – to get viewers making repeat visits to the box office or to win over the hearts of award season voters.
A world premiere at Toronto will certainly set the Fox release up for what should be strong openings in the UK and Australia on Sept 30, in the US on Oct 2 and through most of the rest of the world before Christmas. In the long run, awards recognition might make the difference between a gross on the level of the somewhat comparable Gravity (which took $274m in the US and $449.1m internationally) and Scott’s earlier space adventure Prometheus (which managed $126.5m in the US and $276.9m elsewhere).
The source novel – eventually a best seller but originally self-published online by computer programmer-turned-author Andy Weir – is a science-heavy account, largely made up of written log entries, of how US astronaut Mark Watney survives after being left for dead during a near-future manned mission to Mars.
The film kicks off with Watney (Damon, whose last sci-fi outing was Elysium) being injured – apparently fatally – while the crew is leaving Mars to escape a massive storm. When he recovers, Watney, the mission botanist and mechanical engineer, starts putting his ingenuity to use in an effort to stay alive until the planned arrival of the next mission several years hence. Amongst other things, his efforts involve growing potatoes in human manure and jury-rigging a rover for dangerous journey across the planet.
Eventually, Watney makes contact with mission control, allowing the film to follow the desperate efforts of NASA and JPL scientists – played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean, among others – to mount a rescue mission and the heroic actions of the mission commander (Jessica Chastain, from Interstellar, in which Damon also had a small role) and her crew aboard the mission’s mother ship.
The storytelling techniques work well enough to keep the film engaging – though having characters read out messages as they type them gets annoying pretty quickly – and Scott keeps the pacing breezy and relatively light. There’s plenty of dry humour from Watney and from the eccentric scientists on earth consulting and sometimes clashing about the rescue mission. In fact, the film is often a bit too eager to please (overdoing, for example, the ironic use of cheesy seventies disco music).
Getting most of the book’s plot on screen also makes the film feel rushed, stopping it from milking dramatic moments and allowing the audience to share in Watney’s highs and lows of hope and despair. Damon is pleasantly watchable as the spirited and funny Watney, even if the other performers feel underused in what are for the most part rather one dimensional roles.Only in the climactic rescue sequence does the film deliver a really substantial emotional punch.
Three years after exploring the wonders of space in Prometheus, Scott, once again collaborating with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, delivers another striking vision of a distant world. He makes the most of awe-inspiring locations in Jordan’s Wadi Rum (also used in Prometheus and Red Planet) to stand in for the surface of Mars and uses 3D to immerse the audience in the desolate landscape that accentuates Watney’s isolation 140 million miles from home. It’s probably in the visual and effects departments that The Martian stands its best chance of earning winning awards.