I love awards season movies, but too often so many of those movies take themselves so seriously that when they shine a light on something in society or remind us of the awful things in this world. Think about recent Best Picture winners & nominees. Seriously, do you ever want to watch 12 Years a Slave again? The Martian skates a very delicate line – it puts our protagonist in the direst of situations, and generally that means we get something either bleak or cheesy. Somehow, that doesn’t happen here. The Martian turns out to be a hopeful, emotional, thrilling look into the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds.
Over its 134 minute runtime, there are essentially two stories going on here with the same purpose – Mark’s survival. Story one is Mark on Mars, story two is NASA debating how to get him home. It’s a relatively simple structure that kept me engaged in the action and free of confusion. Too many awards season movies can get marred in multiple branching stories that ultimately go not very far (I’m looking at you American Hustle), but that’s not the case here. Characters drop in and out, each vital to the plot in their own way. It’s an interest dichotomy in that we have two stories developing very differently; one is entirely plot driven, while the other is entirely character driven. Interwoven between the two stories are recurring themes involving the importance of communication and solving impossible tasks by taking them one step at a time. It’s surprisingly practical advice for a movie about surviving on Mars.
The stronger of the two stories is Mark’s survival on Mars. It is imperative that the audience is always rooting for Mark, and Matt Damon was perfectly cast in that role. I don’t know if many other A-List guys could have pulled off this role. Damon has always had a penchant at playing characters that are likeable, and that’s what Mark is. However, you can’t draw an audience in with just being a great guy; you also have to believe he could pull off this impossible feat. Damon gives Mark just enough of a hint of self-assuredness that it doesn’t come off quite like full-blown arrogance, but enough that he’s confident in his abilities to pull this off. We spend a lot of time alone with Mark, and I have to admit I was emotionally connected when major events occurred. It damn-near got a little dusty in that theater a couple times.
Meanwhile, we have everything going on with NASA figuring out how to get Mark home. There is little character development here, and I think that’s fine. We have a handful of archetypes with clear motivations and reasons for any actions they have. There are a couple semi-convenient occurrences along the way that might trouble some strict logicians out there, but I ultimately turned a blind eye to them. (Only one convenience really made me blink, but it doesn’t affect my overall grade.) Some character behaviors are also a bit tough to understand at first blush, but then you remember that we’re talking about NASA and everyone here has an IQ over 150, so when an idea does appear crazy smart, well, it’s because everyone involved is crazy smart.
Technically speaking, everything looked fantastic. Ridley Scott has always made great sci-fi worlds, and here we have no exception. Now is the point where I admit Scott is one of my favorite directors out there, and I was worried that we had seen our last good Ridley Scott movie. I was very happy to be wrong about that.
The Martian is a great movie that should be experienced while it’s in theaters. It’s a technical spectacle that was emotionally gripping and touched on themes that are applicable to anyone despite the setting they are presented in. Some of the stuff in NASA is a little bit on the meh side though, as several characters and interactions felt to archetypal. Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of performance that the Oscars fawn over, but Damon absolutely deserves some sort of consideration for a great performance. The Martian is a solid A.