The Martian

The Martian does the science fiction film genre justice… and then some. Based on the highly anticipated adaptation of Andy Weir’s hit 2011 novel, this quality film evokes surprisingly genuine emotions as this space experience grabs the attention and never lets go.

The Martian impresses on several levels thanks to a strong cast, seasoned director and excellent plot. The drama, thrills and scientific elements impress without resorting to audience manipulation, cheap scares and unnecessarily prolonged dramatic situations.

Set in modern times, Matt Damon stars as Mark , who finds himself left behind on Mars after he and his crew experience an unexpected storm. Jessica Chastain (Interstellar) plays Mark’s commander Melissa Lewis as filmmakers quickly establish their relationship as respectful, but a bit tumultuous as Mark’s considerable skills put him on equal standing with her.

Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie (Hercules) plays crew member Alex Vogel while Michael Peña (Ant-Man, Crash) plays crew member Rick Martinez who focuses on the best solution instead of authority. “One more trick then I’m following orders,” he says. Kate Mara (The Fantastic Four) plays communications crew member Beth Johanssen and Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plays crew member Chris Beck.

Mark, who is also an expert botanist, makes a tough personal decision before tackling several survival challenges on this “Red Planet”. Some humorous observations (e.g. various law comparisons, etc.) and famous references (e.g. Neil Armstrong) help his character and audiences cope with these challenges.

Damon covers the emotional, mental, and physical very well. It seems a dramatic body transformation near the end might be just special effects since audiences never see Mark’s face and body in the same shot, but even if not, Damon gets top marks for his performance.

Filmmakers wisely use point-of-view shots from astronauts’ helmet cameras. In Mark’s case, he communicates to NASA through video so he can survive and go home. His understandable complaints and entertaining asides are incredibly memorable.

Jeff Daniels leads the top NASA directors as Teddy Sanders with Kristen Wiig as the marketing director  Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Mars Missions director and Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson. They all traverse the NASA mantra “prepare for every outcome” as they delegate, dare and find “safe ways to buy more time” for Mark.

This trio works continuously with Chief of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), played by Benedict Wong, and his team for Mark’s rescue and the continuation of the NASA program. “The world is on our side,” says Vincent as other international entities get involved in this high-profile event. Other key NASA employee roles include Mackenzie Davis (What If) as Mindy Park and Donald Glover (TV’s Community) as Rich Purnell.

Mark’s crew holds fast in their support for him and take incredible risks of their own. “Let’s hope it’s a good idea,” says Martinez as the steel-jawed Commander Lewis quickly responds “It is.” Chastain delivers the necessary credibility with ease as the entire cast excels in the film except for one small part where a worker speaks in protest during a discovery sequence in a cafeteria.

Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Prometheus) and his crew shot this two-hour and 21-minute film in Jordan, Turkey, and Hungary while incorporating actual planetary footage. Audiences see the vibration and shaking faces of the astronauts along with amazing views of Mars and a few of Earth. His circular shots rotating around an astronaut during the film’s climax impress on a very high level.

The screenplay by Drew Goddard (World War Z, Cloverfield) has balanced pacing using Weir’s rich base  also works in some comic relief with a Lord of the Rings reference.

The basic survival elements (e.g. low oxygen levels, etc.) are familiar while the situations are very unique and create some pioneering moments. The plot progresses in  (a solar day on Mars). Beyond the timekeeping, audiences don’t need any special scientific knowledge, but it certainly enhances the free-flowing plot packs in great solutions, scenarios and surprises only deflating when Director Sanders mentions something bad and the audience can predictably expect something bad to occur next. The ending was pitch perfect. A very satisfying experience on many levels.

Recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. Stay for the cast’s “curtain call” sequence at the start of the ending credits and check out the supplementary website at www.areslive.com.

Copyright © Michael Siebenaler

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