Matt Damon stranded on a foreign planet and Jessica Chastein solving space problems, it’s Interstellar. No, it’s The Martian. Matt Damon isn’t evil or in deep freeze.
In fact, the two films are decidedly different despite the casting double-up and some vaguely similar plot-points. Where Interstellar was all drama and tension, The Martian is surprisingly light in tone considering the bleak situation Damon’s character Mark Watney finds himself in.
The Martian takes little time getting into things. Watney and his five teammates, led by Commander Lewis (Chastein) and also including Kate Mara and Michael Pena, are on Mars in the midst of a research mission when a vicious storm hits, forcing them to vacate. Unfortunately Watney is hit by debris and disappears. The crew quickly assume he’s dead and head back towards Earth. Watney wakes quite crestfallen to see that not only is he alone but he’s been impaled by an antenna. A fast, not entirely clean, staple job and he’s ready to record a video message stating he is actually still alive.
We quickly learn that any new mission to Mars would take four years to arrive and Watney only has provisions for about 400 days. A pretty melancholic picture in anyone’s book. However, the film doesn’t dwell on the hopelessness of the situation, but allows Damon to shine as a comic hero while he gets to work on figuring out how survive for however long it takes for him to be rescued. His main strategy involves poo, just so you know.
Damon really is the star here, and the scenes on Mars are mostly all of the best ones. Damon’s constant wisecracking and brevity as he goes about ‘life’ keeps everyone’s thoughts, especially his own, away from the sinking feeling that if one thing goes wrong death is very close. The disco music he must endure also helps with this. It’s the light-hearted tone that keeps the film moving at a nice pace.
That tone extends down to Earth, where NASA eventually manages to engage in communication with Watney and start devising a plan to get him home a lot sooner than four years. Something as complicated as this turns out to be obviously needs a lot of minds on the job and we’re bombarded with stars including: Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, and Donald Glover. The Chinese get in on the plan too, which is cheekily codenamed ‘Elrond’ (a plan that sparks another comparison to Interstellar).
Daniels is abrupt and vague in his perplexing press conferences, while Ejiofor is more emotional. Sean Bean, in typical outraged Boromir fashion, is telling everyone what should be done. Donald Glover is a charming, clumsy genius while Wiig is not sure anyone of them are in their right mind. All these actors do a fine job of keeping the tone consistent but some of the longer stretches on Earth seem a touch too casual and lack intensity.
The film is over two hours long and could have shaved under that if not for a superfluous scene where Watney’s crew are discussing if they want to try to save him. The film makes out like there is a chance of some tension or conflict here but Sean Bean was right all along when he said “they won’t hesitate for a second”. It was at least a five minute scene that could have been cut down to one.
The last half hour of the film is for the most part fantastic. We’re in turn shocked and dazzled by various scenes. The action and effects are superb. One scene in particular is astoundingly beautiful. Although the film does misstep a little as we get shots of crowd after crowd around the world standing in front of big screens waiting to see the outcome of the rescue mission. We get that this is a global event so we don’t need to see so much of this. It comes off as a little melodramatic.
Ultimately, The Martian is a good, entertaining film that will have you smiling a lot of the time but it packs just enough punch to balance the jokes. In a way, the emotionally draining experience of Interstellar, and before that ‘Gravity’ may have helped The Martian seem like fresh and welcome change in direction.