The Martian

A fantastic science-fiction movie proves the human spirit cannot die.

By Jacoby Bancroft, University of Nevada at Reno

I don’t know when the world turned on Matt Damon.

The man won an Oscar for screenwriting and has been nominated for acting twice. He’s proven himself a skilled action star, a gifted comedic actor and even cooked meth on Breaking Bad (wait, that was Jesse Plemons, AKA Meth Damon, but you get my point).

He’s one of the most famous faces in Hollywood, and yet I could not get a single person to go see The Martian with me. I told everyone it looked like a great movie, that it was an experience they had to see on the big screen and critics have been absolutely raving about it. But everyone I asked had the same response.

After I told them how cool it sounded, they responded, “Yeah…but Matt Damon…” and then their voices trailed off as if their brains were recalling some past wrongdoing Matt Damon had personally inflicted on them. Whatever feelings you have about Ben Affleck’s BFF, set those aside and see The Martian. It’s an excellent film that reminds us how resilient the human spirit can be, while serving as a strong testament to mankind’s ingenuity.

In a fine return to form for director Ridley Scott, The Martian sees Damon play Mark Watney, an Astronaut who’s accidently left behind and presumed dead by his crew during a manned mission to Mars. Now stranded alone on a hostile planet, Mark has to somehow find a way to survive with limited supplies, while NASA scrambles to find a way to bring him home.

I love a smart movie with smart characters. Too often, a film will sacrifice a character’s intelligence in order to move the plot along or stretch it out. Lazy screenwriters will have their characters make avoidable mistakes in order to increase conflict and tension. It’s a frustrating plot device that makes me yank my hair out every time.

I’m bald in three places because of movies like Limitless, Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, which stress the fact their characters are smart, but then does everything to disprove that notion.

It causes me to yell at the movie screen and earns me a nice escort out of the theater. I would try to sneak back in, but my bald spots make me very distinguishable.

That’s why I was so relieved to see a film like The Martian. Every character in the movie is a genius in some way, which isn’t that hard to believe given they’re all astronauts and rocket scientists. Even though every character is smart and logical, it doesn’t mean things are easy.

Quite the contrary actually. I can’t remember a movie where there were as many problems to solve as The Martian. How’s he going to survive 4 years alone with 2 years of food? How is he going to communicate with NASA? How is he supposed to drive his Mars rover over 500 kilometers when its battery life only allows it 30 kilometers before it needs a recharge? All those questions, plus a billion more, beat down Mark at every turn, but his refusal to lay down and die pushes him to keep going. Movies focusing on unstoppable human willpower really speak to me, but I also love interesting formats, and The Martian has one of the most intriguing structures since Birdman.

Unlike other films, this is a movie structured in a purely problem-then-solution format. In one scene, Mark will discover a problem, think about it, and then by the next scene he’ll have come up with a solution for his problem. On paper, that sounds incredibly boring, but the constant bombardment of new challenges, paired with Damon’s winning performance, helps the movie breeze along easily, despite having a two and half hour runtime.

There’s also no main antagonist besides the threat of death. Early on, it looks like Jeff Daniel’s character, the president of NASA, would take on the bureaucratic stereotype hindering everyone’s progress, but thankfully the movie avoids that cliché. Instead the movie focuses on the different factions, including the NASA scientists on the ground, the Chinese government, Mark’s previous crew who accidently left him and Mark himself, who are all contributing what they can to help bring Mark home.

Although extremely compelling, this type of structure doesn’t leave room for much character growth. This is a film with a gaggle of interesting actors who just pop up randomly (hello Sebastian Stan! Hello Sean Bean! Hello Donald Glover!), but none of them are given much to do besides be another piece in the Save Mark Watney puzzle. Jessica Chastain perhaps suffers the most from this, as her character is made to be very important, but she really just spends her time staring off into the distance.

Even Mark Watney doesn’t go through the dramatic change of self-examination and growth you would expect from a movie like this. He’s the only man on an entire, uninhabitable planet, but the movie never takes the time to explore what that really means.

This isn’t Castaway on Mars, it’s more like a heist movie with an extremely likeable ensemble cast trying to steal a man away from another planet.

There’s a joke making its way around the internet, saying with Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar and now The Martian, we are spending way too much money rescuing Matt Damon. But unlike those other movies, The Martian forces Mark to be an active player in his own rescue. Seeing him take such a vital and dogged role in his survival endears him to us unlike any other character Damon has played recently. Watney is also one of the funniest movie characters to be brought to life in the last year, which makes him even more likeable. So please Hollywood, keep losing Matt Damon if it means more movies like The Martian.

Overall Grade: A-