The Martian is Otherworldly

Ben Atwater

In an age where government funding is diluted amongst hundreds of different agencies, the funding for the space program is more of an afterthought for the current administration in office. Between 1955 and 1970, humankind launched the first artificial satellite into space, put people on the moon, and invented a slew of new technology that has been used for medical advancements since. From 1970 to present, the biggest discovery in the cosmos is some wet salt found on Mars last week. This halt in advancement and research in the stars has clearly created an agenda for several Hollywood filmmakers.

Matt Damon in a scene from The Martian (AP photo)
Matt Damon in a scene from The Martian (AP photo)

Released last week is The Martian. Helmed by Alien and Gladiator director Ridley Scott, The Martian stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, the botanist of a NASA mission sent to Mars in the not too distant future. Coming in a massive ship, The Hermes, Watney and crew are some of the first humans on Mars. Lost in a Martian storm, Watney’s crew leaves him behind presuming him dead. Lo and behold, Watney has survived and has to use his logic and rationale to survive on an airless planet with very limited resources for dozens of months. Back on Earth, the men and women of NASA deal with the PR crisis that ensues and have  to strategically consider their options as to how to save Watney. Watney’s crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), also goes through their own quest on the way back to Earth.

Director Ridley Scott has not exactly had such a great track record recently, so I was very cautious about The Martian, worrying that Scott seemed to have lost his flare. However, The Martian is an excellent film.

First and foremost, the cast is one of the most talented group of actors in recent films. From Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Bridges, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Pena all make up the all-star cast. Damon is a great lead, bringing a level of groundedness to Mark Watney’s ordeal. Rather than dwelling on the hopelessness of his situation, Watney approaches his ordeal with an open mind and optimistic viewpoint. Joking about life- threatening situations like dwindling food supplies or extreme temperatures, Watney’s disposition brings laughs as well as strong emotions. He is simply a very likeable hero.

The rest of the cast also does a great job. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a PR representative for NASA. Ejiofor is as committed to this role as he was in 12 Years a Slave, which earned him an Oscar nomination. All of the crew of Chastain’s ship are very committed as well, having great chemistry, which is needed for a small crew spending over three years in a confined space together.

Visually, The Martian is breathtaking. This is most evident in scenes on The Hermes. The portrayal of zero gravity is excellent, and it seems as if The Martian was filmed in space to get the realistic effect it shows. Outside of space, the Martian vistas are beautifully serene. Filmed in a desert in Jordan, the mountains and craters are edited in seamlessly. Regardless of the quality of Scott’s previous films, he is a master of putting visuals to life, particularly in 3D. The attention to detail is excellent, with atmospheric layering visible to the naked eye during shots in space looking down on Earth and Mars.

While the performances and visuals are excellent in The Martian, the best element is how the film manages to intersperse political commentary on the space program. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, who lives through the nightmare that is the catastrophe of Watney’s isolation. Balancing budgetary concerns with fundamental ethics, Daniels’ character must consider the best course of action, having to answer to several parties. A scene in the film even hints at the lack of international cooperation in space exploration. After NASA’s rocket with supplies for Watney blows up during launch, the Chinese space agency must work with NASA to deploy their special boosters to launch the supplies. A tentative relationship at first, the two agencies work together to save a man deserted 50 million miles away.

Visually, emotionally, and intellectually stimulating, The Martian is an excellent film that is sure to satisfy nearly any movie goer. Absolutely worth full price, the two and a half hours flies by. The Martian is sure to come up in Oscar conversation this coming February.