The Martian Review: Exploring a New Tone

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The opening shot of The Martian is set on the stars. Director Ridley Scott immediately wants us wondering and dreaming about the unknown. And then the camera pans down to the red desert wasteland of Mars, with a NASA crew conducting a mission. In the not-too-distant future, we’re already on our way to the unknown.

The Martian is as pro-exploration a movie could get. Even when left in a dire situation, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) remains positive, cracking jokes to a camera that records videos no one might ever see. After accidentally being left behind by his crew during a storm, Mark has to find a way to survive on Mars for four years before a rescue mission can show up. What’s different than 2013’s similar, and superior lost-in-space drama Gravity is that The Martian keeps letting Mark win, where Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone had to fight with herself to not give up. There’s none of that here. Mark spends a scene right after he left contemplating his choices, then decides he wants to live and never falters. There’s a warm and fuzzy feeling throughout the film that, while fresh for the genre, derails a lot of the tension that would normally take place in a story about a man stuck by himself on Mars.

But Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name discourages fear that goes along with space exploration. After all, “In space, no one can hear you scream” is so 1979. Of Scott’s sci-fi films, this is the most positive and forward-thinking. AlienBlade Runner, and even Prometheus all play with our faults as a species that get us stuck in these situations. The Martian‘s conflicts mostly arise out of bad luck and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) trying to save face for his organization. But even there, Teddy is rooting for the brilliant minds working to bring Mark home.

It’s the air of positivity that makes this film so unique and occasionally incredibly powerful, not to mention Damon’s strong take on the every man. The sacrifice of the edge-of-your-seat moments found in a film like Gravity certainly hurts the pacing a bit, as well as its general predictability. But the viewpoint is one worth celebrating in a time where any and all off-world exploration has seemingly ground to a halt. Scott believes that we as a species are ready to move forward, and he’s made a film that pushes hard for it. Maybe this, combined with a certain recent discovery of the aquatic sort on the Red Planet, will finally get us moving. It’s hard not to walk out of the theater after The Martian not excited or hopeful for our future discoveries. That is the film’s greatest accomplishment. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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