“The Martian” (2015): Solving Problems into the Future (Review)

This movie was made by the guy whose first breakout feature (Alien) came with the tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Ridley Scott is back at his best.

Scott is Hollywood’s most aggressive grand atmospheric visualist. He spent a three-decade career telling small stories in huge, engrossing, and textured worlds, each housing a deftly subtle moral critique. An idea director, his films occasionally subdue their personal centers for the grand thematic picture. No longer. After a spree of four consecutive flops, Scott has emerged like the phoenix with his best work since the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven, and the most affecting personable film of his entire career. It is also the best film of the year.

The hook is simple: our will to solve problems and realize human virtue. Not just our stranded botanist astronaut Mark Watney, but NASA’s administrators, engineering corps, and the crew; mankind is put to the test. This is Private Ryan saving himself and inspiring everyone else to follow in his example.

Indeed, having everyone make just enough mistakes to keep the struggle credibly going past the two hour length without appearing incompetent could not have been easy. Fortunately, The Martian has a sense of humor and rhythm to its pacing. Its comical setups present one greater physics-baffling conundrum after another, yet not once does it lose focus by moping around. It won’t let you succumb to despair. I would never have expected this much levity in a sci-fi endurance movie this visually surreal. The Red Planet tries to kill this poor astronaut at every turn, yet every breathtaking trademark-Scott landscape sweep reinforces how worth it the trip was, and how important it is for us to try again. Watney finds the silver lining with ease, and the credits song could not have been more appropriate (I won’t spoil it).

The empowering optimism of this film is nothing short of elating. If Saving Private Ryan was an ode to the heroism of our grandfathers as citizen soldiers braving the peril of war in defiance of rational math, The Martian is a cheer for the audacity of today’s finest. The crew dons its space suits like they’re dressing for battle, and incur the wrath of space and even their home base without a second thought. They didn’t just save one man; they shaped the future. We can too. Thanks, Ridley.

Overall: 9.6/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • One wonders why Ridley’s films are so often hit and miss? I mean, he churns out solid stuff like Gladiator and Matchstick Men (which, admittedly, didn’t do so well commercially) but follows up with turds like Exodus, Prometheus and The Counselor.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear this one is doing well, and Ridley’s back on top. I always like Matt Damon in whatever he does so I’m looking forward to seeing this.

  • Brittani

    God, I can’t wait for this film! The book is hands down one of the best I’ve ever read. Great review! I’m glad you liked it.

  • Vivek

    Thanks, Brittani!! I’m looking forward to reading the book myself. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this, and I hope you love the movie as much as I did.

  • rich

    really? “i will survive”? sounds farcical.

  • rich

    ok, just watched the trailer. it was just plain wrong and disrespectful for damon’s character to say anything negative about neil armstrong. After reading armstrong’s autobiography, i can’t imagine anyone connected to the space program in any way emitting even one negative word about the man. yes, i admit, all i saw was a fraction of a clip and possibly out of context, but i still dislike it. perhaps you can shed some light on the utterance.

  • Vivek

    Yes, that Neil Armstrong quote was extremely out of context. The joke in the film doesn’t disparage or dishonor his memory in any way. As for “I Will Survive,” it’d obviously be silly for that song to play during the movie, but it speaks to the film’s unshakable optimism, which it earns like no other this year.

  • Just got out of it. Now, this is coming from a guy who read and absolutely loved the book. The movie is exceptional. Easily one of Damon’s best performances of his career. He IS Watney to the t. Loved the humor, loved the pacing. I was sad they left some stuff out of the book, but it was mostly the science-y stuff, so I understand it being cut.

    But I do agree, this is Scott in a return to form. Good point about the optimism as well. It never makes you depressed or kicks you when you’re down.

    Now if only this inspires a more favorable public interest in NASA…

  • Vivek

    I’ve heard that there’s about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, presumably stuff from the books that just wasn’t absolutely needed. The movie is airlock tight for how long and dense it is, but I’m sure we’ll see a director’s cut because it’s Ridley Scott.

  • rich

    now that i’ve seen it, i can speak with more credibility. did not like it at all. the humor deflates any real tension that never really had a chance to develop. it’s trying to be two movies at once, and it can’t succeed. if you want me to feel any tension (see: Gravity, which had plenty) you can’t put that side by side with humor. it’s oil and water trying to mix.

    also, watney is a botanist. early on he tells us he’s on a planet where nothing can grow. yet he grew plenty. that means 1. he’s a botanist who doesn’t know shit (pun intended) 2. any advanced research by NASA was poorly done, if done at all, or 3. his own evaluation was poorly done. any answer is a bad answer.

    also also, as for damon’s performance, he had no more urgency than he did in “we bought a zoo.” however, from reading armstrong’s biography, i can believe that playing it calm and cool is vital during a crisis. still, he’s a botanist, not an astronaut. which also doesn’t explain why, at the end, he’s teaching a class regarding being an astronaut. he’s not an astronaut any more than howard wolowitz is. he’s a bad gardner who happened to go into space.

    also, also also, he struggled to create enough water to keep the plants alive. okay, but what about water to keep himself alive? if he had water for himself, then he had water for the plants. it just doesn’t add up. the technical aspects were skimmed over without enough depth for me to really feel invested. and i didn’t like that some college kid living on a cot in the closet, skittles, and ramen noodles basically saved the day while all other other geniuses couldn’t get out of their own way.

    other than that, i really dug those recliners they installed in my local UA theater.

  • Vivek

    I have very little about this comment beyond the fact that I disagree with essentially every word, and find it to be both ignorant and cavalier. But your view is your view, so I’ll let it lie.

  • rich

    by what grounds do you have the right to call my comments “ignorant”? to call it “ignorant and cavalier” is rather contrary to then saying you will “let it lie.” you don’t get to do both. just as you have a right to your opinion, so have i. it seems a little childish for you to lash out with “ignorant.” you’re taking it personally. your job is simply to say that you disagree, which you have every right to do, just as i do too. i demand an apology, or maybe skittles.

  • Vivek

    I’m not taking anything personally. You didn’t like the movie; so it goes. But you listed out some reasons which I thought were pretty weak for those reasons. I’ll address the main one. You apparently ignored the reality of the storm, the limits on his resources, and the lack of atmosphere of the planet. That intensity and tension builds itself. That doesn’t mean it has to govern the tone of the whole movie. As far as urgency goes, one would think learning not to panic is a staple of being an astronaut, considering the fact that panic uses up oxygen. The botany complaint is not a point so much as an accused misnomer. The two are not mutually exclusive. Astronauts are scientists and engineers. They usually have a given expertise in a field before or concurrent with their learning everything else they need to know. That’s the same reason water was even an issue. All astronauts recycle water through their urine. The issue is whether his piss could nourish both himself AND his pants. I inferred that right at the moment it was brought up; I don’t think the film had to explain that.

    So you’ll forgive me, I hope, for not thinking very much of the merits of your criticisms.

  • rich

    your reasons for not liking my criticisms don’t change the accuracy of my criticisms. the humor diffused the tension. you don’t have to like that it happened, but it happened. i can’t control that, and you can’t tell me it didn’t happen that way for me.

    also, you haven’t addressed the skittles.

  • Vivek

    Well if you read what I wrote again, I was essentially saying that your criticisms weren’t really criticisms, let alone accurate. I certainly won’t deny that you felt what you say you felt; I’m just contending that your assertions of such feelings as fact are… well wrong. As for the skittles… well you’ve already told me that you want to buy me a drink whenever the hell you and I get to meet in person. I’m happy to bring skittles.

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