The one thing about Interstellar that nearly drove the film from brilliant opus into self indulgent tripe was the film’s final act. There was no really good way of getting to where Interstellar had to go, of course, but the film’s unique finale was divisive. Either it was incredibly brilliant or incredibly stupid; there was no shoulder shrugging “meh” about it. It was a film that wanted to be a great science fiction film about the nature of man and the power of hope, of success against overwhelming odds, but didn’t know how to end itself.
The Martian is the sort of film Interstellar wanted to be, a film about the power of one man to survive the odds when everything is conspiring against him.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on Mars as part of a crew that’s been sent from America. When a surface storm winds up hastening their departure, Watney is caught by flying debris and assumed dead by the crew. Stuck alone on Mars, with limited supplies, Watney is left on his own to survive and no way to contact NASA on Earth. With enough food to last for a while, he’s got to figure out a way to grow crops to prevent his eventual starvation and figure a way to try to contact home.
What follows is a two pronged story. On the one side Damon stars in a Cast Away type story about a man trying to survive on his own, alone, and handling all of the emotional baggage that comes with it. On the other side we see a varied group of scientists, politicians and PR types on Earth working together to try and bring Watney home against insane odds.
The film works on the whole because Matt Damon brings out the leading man persona that he rarely has shown for his career since The Bourne Identity: the likable every man. It’s the one thing Damon hasn’t done enough over the years because he hasn’t taken a role that takes him in this route for a while. Damon has a light breeziness to him that takes an incredibly slow paced film and makes it feel like it’s moving quickly. It takes a certain type of actor to be able to carry such a huge swathe of the film on his shoulders and Damon brings out the sort of charming presence that is hard to pull off in a film like Elysium.
Ridley Scott is in rare form, as well, as he develops this film with a deliberate pace. It’s slow, intentionally, but he allows Damon to carry the film. This is a case of a director stepping back and letting his actor fill the screen. There isn’t much gimmick work here in terms of watching Damon work. The conceit is him, all alone, and he plays it the same way Tom Hanks did in Cast Away. This is a man trying to stay alive, hoping he can be saved but knowing that the odds are he’s going to die alone. Damon has a fine line he walks throughout; he can’t be overly melodramatic or else the foregone conclusion of the film will feel shallow. If he’s too calm it won’t have that emotional resonance in the film’s final moments. He’s glib but just enough to know that he has a gallows humor to his predicament.
The film’s only problem is that the conclusion, while masterfully done, is predictable from the moment the film begins. We know the happy ending is coming and the film throws so many complications toward the end that it becomes easier to predict what will happen. You expect aliens to show up with a desire to prevent Watney from coming home if only because it’s the only complication that doesn’t happen. There comes a point when stacking the deck feels like overkill and it’s to the point where it makes him potentially dying on Mars seem more and more unlikely.
The Martian is masterfully done, and Damon is brilliant, but this isn’t a brilliant film. It’s just a good one.
Director: Ridley Scott Writer: Drew Goddard, based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir Notable Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.