New York Film Fest Review: The Martian

MartianPosterDirector: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan
Running Time: 141 minutes
20th Century Fox

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

If Saving Private Ryan taught us anything, it’s that you can make a damn great film about a Damon in distress. The Martian, Ridley Scott’s joyous tribute to the ingenuity of scientists, is lightyears away from Spielberg’s gritty epic but the results are still spectacular. The Martian is a massively satisfying sci-fi film on every level that’s anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon.

When an unexpectedly harsh storm rips through their mission on Mars, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the heart wrenching decision to leave one of her crew on the surface of the planet, presumed dead. Mark Watney (Damon) in actual fact wakes to find he’s alive having taken a communication antenna directly to the equipment that monitors his vitals. Not to mention to his own abdomen. It’s really the perfect setup for a space horror and indeed Watney’s bloody DIY surgery is cringeworthy to watch, but that’s not the film we’re watching. It’s funny that the director who gave us the iconic ‘in space, no one can hear you scream’ and with Watney has added an addendum of unless you “science the shit” out of your situation and get your own communications back on line. Here Watney’s approach is that of a highly trained scientist–a botanist to be specific–who responds not with panic but with measured practicality and optimism. Watney turns immediately to video logging his progress, a clever way to clue the audience into what’s up as well as the unspoken truth that his journal, and own sense of humor, are vital to his sanity and by extension, his survival. Damon is charming as ever in his solo scenes, still grumbling at his now-absent crew mates as he rifles through their belongings for anything useful. Like Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Watney’s ship is stocked with disco records courtesy of his captain to keep the mood on Mars generally upbeat. When he has setbacks, Damon does let loose with some powerful emotional breakdowns that are all the more affecting for how strong a character we already know Watney to be.

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Meanwhile on Earth, Damon is supported by a bevy of strong actors including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean (who gets in a pretty great Lord of the Rings shout out), Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig. They’re faced with not only how to keep their astronaut alive, but whether to inform Watney’s crew (still on their ship and out of the loop) and how to ‘spin’ their situation with the whole world watching. I think what’s most refreshing about the Earth-bound scenes is the spirit of rational teamwork among the NASA personnel. There’s disagreements and debates but never, as too often is the case in sci-fi films, a Bad Guy or any gross caricatures of government officials hellbent on an agenda. Some of the best scenes are the NASA leaders just throwing down challenges to their tech teams and watching all their wheels turning into motion. Scott wrings suspense out of the sheer amount of options the space agencies have for a mission where if one astronaut is lost in pursuit of another, the whole thing is a failure. If anything, the enemy is determining who ultimately will take responsibility for the chosen course of action and its outcome.

Already powered by its strong cast and the gripping central dilemma, The Martian also excels in every technical aspect. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a touching, often ‘futuristic-sounding’ score that never overpowers the action while Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is gorgeous. Jessica Chastain simply floating through her ship on her rounds is already a beautiful image and in the RealD 3D I saw it in at NYFF, it soared. The film doesn’t rely on the 3D, but it is immersive in the space scenes and frequently had me in awe. A thrilling cinematic experience made even better for regarding complications in space as inevitable and workable rather than with terror. It felt like exactly what we need in a moment where NASA continues to make discoveries (just this week: water!) despite threats of shutdown.

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The Martian opens on October 2nd. 

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