The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, and based on the book written by Andy Weir is a surprisingly simple film. That isn’t a criticism, but if you read the book, you’ll remember that it’s filled with tons of scientific jargon. The film streamlines a lot of that and it’s to the film’s credit that it balances the science while trying not to confuse the viewer.
But the simplicity continues into the plot as well. It starts in a perfectly normal mission to Mars. The team is out and about when a storm hits. It’s too strong for them to stay on the planet, so they scrub the mission and begin to head home. But on the way to the rocket, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is struck by debris and left for dead. The crew simply cannot risk going back for him or everyone else might die.
But surprise! He lives! Of course he does or else there’d be no movie. So Watney awakens and has to survive on Mars until he can either be rescued or the next Mars mission arrives and can retrieve him. Most of the movie’s first act is Watney adjusted to his new situation. He never intended to stay on Mars by himself. But thankfully Mars is a botanist, so he knows a thing or two about growing his own food and surviving off the land.
There are two other subplots in the movie. One encompasses all the NASA people. At first they deal with the fact that Mark is dead and what that means for future Mars missions. Then they have to deal with the fact that he’s actually alive! Now they have to get him back. It’s here that the plot because stuffed with characters.
There’s the director of NASA – played by Jeff Daniels – the PR director, the leader of the Mars missions, the engineer, and a tech person. That’s probably not even all the characters. Many of them are played by very good actors. The cast includes Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. I’m probably forgetting one or two names but that’s already a ton of people for a subplot. Actors like Sean Bean only have two or three scenes in the whole movie. It’s kind of a waste of talent.
The second subplot of the movie involves the remaining crew. They’re currently on their ship, on course to earth, when they receive the news that Mark is alive. The crew is comprised of Kate Mara, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Michael Pena. They have even fewer scenes in the movie than the NASA crew until around the third act when everyone comes together for the finale. Their characters are interesting, but they have so little time on screen that it’s hard to get attached to any of them.
Back to Watney though, his journey on Mars is akin to Cast Away. There are several major things that happen to him that cause you to wonder if he’s going to get off the planet alive. The interesting aspect of his is that Mark will explain why things went wrong… sometimes. When he tries to make water and nearly sets himself on fire, Mark will explain – through video diaries – what went wrong. But when other major things happen Mark completely ignores any explanation. It’s unfortunate and a bit confusing for the viewer who hasn’t read the book before.
Despite that, the movie thrives on Damon’s performance. He’s almost always acting with nothing else in the room with him and yet he makes his scenes completely interesting. There are times that he cheers that you want to cheer along beside him. You want to root for him, and it’s fun.
Mars is basically a character in of itself. Boy is it beautiful to look at too. The red and orange plains of Mars make you sit back and wonder about visiting another planet.
Another thing that was bothersome is towards the third act, all conflict flies out the window until the grand finale of the movie. Mark is supposed to make a very long journey in order to attempt something to get home. The whole thing is going to take seven months, but it’s entirely passed over by the film. So there’s a huge gap in time where everything goes right for Watney and doesn’t exactly make his rescue feel as rewarding as it should be.
That said, the film does do a few things better than the book. There’s an epilogue in the movie that shows the state of the crew and other characters after the mission. This is really appreciated as it helps the audience decompress from the anxiety of the climax. The book itself just sort of… ends. Full stop. It was a pacing decision that I’m glad the movie fixes.
Overall the movie is completely worth watching. It’s got some pacing issues and it makes you wonder why certain characters were ever there in the first place. But aside from those, it’s worth the charm of seeing a foreign planet like you never have before.