Review: 'The Martian' Is a Love Letter to Human Nature and Duct Tape

Jo Wylie ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor

Matt Damon in The Martian. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

“I’m Mark Watney and I’m still alive… obviously. Surprise?”

Speaking into a video diary, Matt Damon’s Watney is huddled under a blanket, dark rings under his eyes, left alone 40 million miles from home, and in his own way, he cracks a joke. The Martian elicits a laugh out of an audience who’s hearts are still beating a mile a minute in the wake of the last scene, an explosive and nerve-wracking exercise in desperate survival.

This nervous, adrenaline-fueled laugh, born out of near-death experiences is the back bone of The Martian– a movie that isn’t a comedy, but which perfectly uses its humor to keep you willing to sit, with a lone character, literally the only human on the entire planet, for huge portions of the 2.5 hour movie. The Martian doesn’t fall into regular pitfalls to keep us watching Matt Damon’s smart mouthed astronaut; Watney doesn’t tearfully watch badly made home videos of his family. He doesn’t hallucinate people to talk to. And best of all, there isn’t a single flashback to his life on earth. At most, Watney pens one small letter to people at home, a subtle and emotional scene that doesn’t overdo itself in the name of a cheap emotional kick.

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Askel Hennie in The Martian. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

These usual kinds of tricks used to carry single-character stories aren’t needed because Ridley Scott doesn’t need them to keep our eyes entertained – visually spectacular, the sweeping landscape of Mars doesn’t once blur into the background, even as if begins to feel familiar, almost home-like, by the end of the 2.5 hour adventure. In fact, very little begins to drag, despite the movie’s impressive timeframe. At most, there are one or two points where you might find yourself glancing at your watch; but mostly out of fear that your heart will give out from the stress if anything else goes wrong. Damon creates a delightfully personable protagonist who keeps you interested through peril after peril.

The only way that someone could argue that The Martian feels overlong is in the exact way it intends to. He movie interacts with the concept of an Epic, in the literary sense of the word. Every minute that weighs on Watney weighs on his audience too, and as the climax of the film approaches and the plot takes us away from certain locations, it can feel like the audience are saying goodbye to a place they’ve known for years. With nothing more than one man with his three rooms of living space, a Rover, and the rocky landscape, The Martian manages to illicit in its audience the feel of a real adventure. Every win hits like complete elation, and every loss feels like it’s going to be the final one, like this is surely the thing that’ll ruin everything.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover in The Martian. Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox.

While Ridley Scott creates a Mars story that feels like it could stand alone, it’s also the earth-bound segments that really gives Watney’s story the breathing space it needs, bringing the tale back to sea level with a mind blowing extended cast of scientists and politicians, wrestling with the issue of getting Watney home. The Martian manages to balance itself between the grim, dark action-movie subgenre, where strife and suffering are used to bring out the worst in literally everyone, and movies like Pacific Rim, where the whole world teams up to skip through fields laughing the moment that the apocalypse pops up on the horizon. Instead, the earth cast that orbits Watney’s story are human, each drawn in a different direction by different obligations and loyalties; but they ultimately come together in a way that unashamedly celebrates the human spirit. There is almost too much earth cast to get into, but worth noting is the emotional conflict borne on the wings of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniel’s fantastic performances, as the director of the Mars program and of all of NASA respectively. At the same time, actors like Donald Glover, a late but lively addition to the cast, and Benedict Wong and his team of engineers, inject a youth and excitement into the drama.

There is one final character in The Martian’s ensemble, perhaps the most important one, which we are yet to mention – science. The Martian does, of course, rest on a few scientific fallacies – if it was all completely possible, we would have manned missions to mars. But the science in the movie sells itself, smart enough that when it works it feels like a real, accomplished victory, but simply explained enough that you don’t spend the whole movie feeling like you should be desperately taking notes in case Matt Damon springs a pop quiz after the credits.

Ultimately, The Martian is more than just a fantastically constructed action science fiction epic; it’s a love letter to human nature, to our desire to help other humans, and to survive. A celebration of ingenuity and the ability to make jokes when everything feels like its seconds from breaking, The Martian will have you biting your nails in one moment and laughing out loud in the next. This is a visually stunning, exuberant movie that cannot come more recommended for film fans across the board.

Overall Grade: A+

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