Film review: Story, cast shine in Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’

Matt Damon stars as a stranded explorer in Ridley Scott’s excellent new sci-fi film The Martian. Photo courtesy of
Matt Damon stars as a stranded explorer in Ridley Scott’s excellent new sci-fi film The Martian. Photo courtesy of

Stars from galaxies near and far loosely populate the screen as director Ridley Scott’s space epic The Martian slowly begins. As the camera pans downward, a large spherical object takes up the majority of the screen. A faint light peaks over the horizon, giving the object its distinct color. It becomes clear that this light is coming from the sun, and the spherical object is actually the red planet Mars.

The Martian, released last Friday, is set in a future not too far or different from our own. NASA has successfully landed astronauts on Mars with the Ares 1 and 2 missions. Thus far, these missions have been lauded as extremely successful, and much has been learned about the geography, terrain and atmosphere of Mars. Our story begins in the middle of the Ares 3 mission, where six astronauts, one of whom is Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), have landed on Mars for a month-long stay to collect samples from the soil layers, run experiments sustaining plant life and generally learn what it’s like living on Earth’s closest cousin.

In the middle of the group’s stay, a violent dust storm accumulates and threatens to destroy the MAV, a rocket designed to get them to orbit at the end of the trip. The Ares 3 commander makes a difficult judgment call and orders the crew to evacuate. While crew members are making their way through the windy dust storm, Watney is hit by a piece of debris that tears his suit, destroys his bio-monitoring systems and knocks him over a cliff. The heartbroken Ares 3 crew, thinking him surely dead in the hostile Martian atmosphere, is forced to leave without Watney before the storm destroys the MAV.

As the crew begins its long journey back to Earth, Watney wakes up to realize that, by some miracle, he is still alive. As he makes his way back to the mission basecamp, he realizes that he is faced with one of the most unconquerable predicaments in the history of space travel: alone on a hostile planet, with supplies designed to last 31 days and no way of contacting Earth to let humanity know that he is still alive.

The cast of The Martian is an ensemble for the ages, boasting multiple award-winning and award-nominated actors. The aforementioned Damon leads the group as Watney, the main character. He plays Watney perfectly, portraying the crippling and violent emotions of a man stranded for dead in one scene, yet capturing Watney’s nerdy charm in the next.

Supporting Damon are Jessica Chastain, playing the leadership-oriented Commander Lewis; Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the man assigned to get Watney home; and Jeff Daniels, as the head of NASA. Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Kate Mara round out the cast. Donald Glover (or as you may know him, Childish Gambino) steals a few scenes as the Zuckerberg-esque Rich Purnell.

The most interesting thing about The Martian is its feeling of realism. As Andy Weir, the author of the novel on which the film is based, has stated, every plot point and every twist is based in scientific fact. The film almost seems like an outline for the future of space travel, depicting the type of mission that, if it ever becomes feasible, should be commissioned to take us to Mars.

The Martian is filled with science, suspense, breathtaking imagery and characters who elicit an emotional connection with their audience. Chief among these characters is Watney, whose wit and sense of humor over 140 minutes make it impossible not to root for the guy who says things like, “So, technically, I’m a pirate. A space pirate.”

At its core, The Martian tells an amazing story about hope, hard work and never giving up – good advice for an overwhelmed student at the College. Its main theme is one of problem solving: using one’s mind, skills and own two hands to overcome obstacles in the name of pursuing success. As Mark Watney would say, all of the pain, work and sacrifice are worth it in the end.

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