Director Ridley Scott proves once again that he’s a science fiction genius with “The Martian,” his adaptation of the book of the same name by Andy Weir. Matt Damon (“Good Will Hunting”) plays botanist Mark Watney, one of the astronauts on Ares 3, a manned mission to Mars. The mission ends tragically when a storm hits the planet. Thought dead, Watney is left behind on Mars and must survive and find a way get rescued.
Watney uses his extensive knowledge of botany and chemistry to, in his words, “science the shit” out of his problematic situation. He resourcefully plants the potatoes from his rations and creates water in an attempt to extend his food rations. Unfortunately, survival doesn’t matter if he’s unable to communicate to NASA and the Earth that he’s still alive and needs rescuing.
Despite how impossible Watney’s circumstances seem, he remains hopeful and lightens the tense moments in the film with his sarcasm and wit. Watney portrays an extremely likable protagonist, making it easy for the audience to connect with his emotional journey. “The Martian” successfully blends action, science fiction and comedy to create a well-rounded product. Though stranded on Mars, Watney finds a groovy, disco soundtrack left behind by Captain Melissa Lewis, ABBA super fan and an Ares 3 flight member, which provides a cheerful contrast to the perilous situation at hand.
The all-star crew of Ares 3 includes Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Captain Melissa Lewis, Kate Mara (“House of Cards”) as Beth Johanssen, Michael Peña (“End of Watch”) as Rick Martinez and Aksel Hennie (“Hercules”) as Alex Vogel. The crew isn’t told that Watney is still alive until they’ve made significant headway on their journey home to Earth. Each of the actors and actresses performed their role in a solid manner, and they did an excellent job of portraying their feelings of guilt and helplessness at leaving their friend behind. However, the audience hardly has a chance to become acquainted with these characters because most of the action takes place on either Mars or back home on Earth. Thus, the audience may have a difficult time relating to these secondary characters or empathizing with them.
While the characters of Earth at NASA weren’t the main focus of the film, they also put on stellar performances. Jeff Daniels (“Dumb & Dumber”) proved excellent as Teddy Sanders, the cautious and analytical director of NASA and Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones”) was also great as Mitch Henderson, the bleeding heart director of the Ares 3 mission. Throughout the film, they butt heads on what the best course of action is for the crew and for Watney. And although he was only in the film briefly, Donald Glover (“Community”), also known as the rapper Childish Gambino, gave a great performance as the eclectic and nerdy astrodynamicist Rich Purnell.
“The Martian” draws some comparisons to “Interstellar,” a 2014 space exploration film, but other than the fact that both take place in outer space and focus on the journey of a singular male protagonist, they are worlds apart. “The Martian” achieves an impressive mixture of suspense and humor, but it lacks the same emotional tug on the heartstrings that “Interstellar” achieves through Matthew McConaughey’s personal sacrifice for the good of mankind. In “The Martian,” human survival isn’t at stake and Watney doesn’t have any family besides his parents, so the lack of emotional resonance weakens the film.
Besides this flaw, Scott successfully executes a smart and tense film that will likely inspire a renewed interest in NASA and outer space. The audience will be moved by the lengths NASA and the crew of Ares 3 are willing to go to in order to save their friend and colleague. “The Martian” is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of human ingenuity.
“The Martian” (PG-13, 141 min) is now playing at Regal Gallery Place.Follow @adenamio