There’s a moment toward the latter half of “The Martian” where Matt Damon faces the camera. Staring back at the audience is a scrawny, ragged shell of a man with a haggard, overgrown beard.
His character, astronaut Mark Watney, has spent over 400 days alone on Mars on a rationed diet desperate to get back home to Earth.
It’s difficult not to flash to an image of Tom Hanks’ Oscar-nominated role in 2000’s “Cast Away.”
Replace the arid desert surface of Mars with a deserted island and “The Martian” is essentially “Cast Away” in space, but with slightly less emotional trauma and no volleyball (unless Wilson is a potato covered in Matt Damon’s fictional excrement. We’ll get to that in a bit.)
“Cast Away,” from Fox, which is also releasing “The Martian,” earned Hanks an Academy Award nomination for best actor.
“The Martian,” based on the 2011 best-selling novel by Andy Weir, certainly puts Matt Damon in the running to do the same.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you know the basic premise: Damon stars as the cocky and confident astronaut Mark Watney, who’s left on Mars after a dust storm causes his team to abandon their mission on the red planet early.
Watney’s left behind because his crew thinks he’s dead. They’re wrong.
The odds are stacked against him.
He doesn’t have enough food to survive. He has a limited supply of water. Oh, and the next NASA mission to the planet won’t arrive for four years.
There’s no way this guy’s going to make it, right?
And that’s what you tune in to watch for two hours and 21 minutes: One man’s struggle and persistence to do the impossible and see whether or not he will make it home.
You’re hard pressed to do anything but root for Watney as he’s determined to find an answer to every problem thrown his way to survive. You say Mars can’t grow food? Watney’s botany skills will teach you a thing or two about growing 400 potato plants using your own excrement as a fertiliser. Can’t phone home? Watney finds a workaround that would make E.T. impressed. Want to stay warm? Nothing a piece of plutonium can’t handle.
The audience becomes his own personal cheerleader, stressing out whenever he has a setback and letting out a big sigh of relief when he’s out of danger. Myself and other audience members were cringing, wincing, and gasping several times throughout the film.
A scene early on brings to mind Scott’s 1979 classic “Alien” as Damon pulls an “alien” object out of his body. For the squeamish, it can be difficult to watch.
If “The Martian” sounds a bit bleak to watch, it’s not.
Don’t worry you’re not tuning in to watch a guy slowly die over the course of two hours.
This isn’t Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013’s “Gravity,” which found Sandra Bullock lost in space.
Watney’s witty persona keeps the film lively. Whether through numerous expletives scattered throughout the film to vent his frustration with the Red planet or if he’s jamming out to the only music he can find — disco, courtesy of his commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) — Watney keeps a good sense of humour throughout the film.
It probably helps that unlike Hanks’ Chuck Noland, who was stranded on a desert island, Watney has the means of figuring out how to communicate with those back home to help keep him going and to keep him sane.
While the film is very much dominated by Damon, he’s supported by a remarkably large star-studded ensemble: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara (who is basically the same character she was in ‘Fantastic Four,’ minus superpowers), Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover.
Yeah. That’s a lot of names.
Though the film puts them all to use, some of them feel like glorified cameos. Peña is there for little more than comic relief, similar to his role in this summer’s “Ant-Man.”
Wiig and Glover’s roles in particular are short-lived, too, but memorable nonetheless in a few of the film’s more lighthearted moments, including a fun nod to “Lord of the Rings” fans will appreciate.
But perhaps that’s not to overshadow Damon. Without a doubt, this is his film.
And then there’s Mars, which looks gorgeous.
Jordan’s desert Wadi Rum, known as The Valley of the Moon, fittingly stood in for the Martian planet. The desert is a popular destination to film movies depicting Mars.
However, to call “The Martian” simply a thriller or a space movie about Mars would be incorrect.
The film isn’t just about Watney’s personal mission to get home, but also the lengths with which people go to bring him home, and that’s what sets it apart from genre films “Gravity” and “Interstellar.”
Those guys are basically on their own. “The Martian” is this decade’s “Cast Away,” but if “Cast Away,” took place in a world that was constantly plugged in and online.
A few other things worth noting:
The film’s biggest obstacle
Not well versed in science? Good luck getting past its scientific and mathematical jargon. I was scratching my head, and I’m sure general audiences will, too.
Thankfully, it’s somewhat limited, but even Michael Pena’s character Rick asks his astronaut comrade Beth (Mara) at one moment to translate her geek speak to English.
If you haven’t read the book, wait to pick it up until after the movie.
You’ll get much more out of the movie. As an experiment, I saw it without having read the book because colleagues on my science team, who have read the book, saw the film ahead of me. (You can read Kelly Dickerson’s take on the film here.)
Reading the book beforehand would have made it more difficult to root for Watney’s character if I knew the book’s ending. Stress-inducing moments wouldn’t have been as frightening or unexpected had I seen them coming.
“The Martian” or “Interstellar”?
People have asked me what movie is better: “The Martian” or Christopher Nolan’s space epic “Interstellar,” which I thoroughly enjoyed.
It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
“Interstellar” serves as an aesthetic masterpiece, a modern day “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was made as a love letter to his daughter. It is, essentially, a father-daughter film. “The Martian” plays like a love letter to science and scientists and humanity. “Interstellar” is a movie you would only want to watch in theatres on the big screen to appreciate Nolan’s love of shooting on IMAX. “The Martian” will be a film rebroadcast on cable for years to come.
See it in 2D
“The Martian” will be released in both 2D and 3D. I saw the film in the latter format, and other than making you feel like you’re in a dust storm that occurs at the start of the film, it didn’t add much to the overall experience. You can probably stick to 2D on this one.
“The Martian” is the ultimate story of not giving up in the face of a challenge. It’s a call to action, and an inspiring one at that.
As Watney’s character states in the film, at some point in your life, everything will go south. You have two choices: You either accept what obstacles life gives you and throw in the towel or you can solve the problem.
That’s advice anyone could heed.
You can see “the Martian” arrives in theatres October 2.
Check out the trailer below.
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