Fantastic Fest Review: ‘THE MARTIAN’ Thrives On Humor, Heart and Authenticity

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Teddy Yan // Contributing Writer

THE MARTIAN | 141 min | PG-13
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (book)
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Sam Spruell, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Jeff Daniels

What is Astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist by trade, to do when accidentally marooned on Mars with vanishingly few supplies? In an already memetic one-liner from the trailer, Matt Damon’s Watney will be forced to “Science the sh*t out of this.”

From a technical standpoint, THE MARTIAN is a marvel of scientific accuracy. From the shockingly realistic spacecraft Hermes, to equipment that looks half-a-step away from functional, to (I kid you not) actual hexadecimal coding on the computer screens, Ridley Scott has single-handedly fended off a whole host of the worst Hollywood Sci-Fi clichés. Instead, THE MARTIAN delivers an accessible, relatable story that does the precise opposite of insulting your intelligence.

The movie spends audience attention where it should, on the narrative of getting Watney home. It doesn’t spend attention where it shouldn’t – only once will you find a truly irreverent infodump. Despite the masking of the boring details, the movie obeys all the rules at every turn. Scott even graciously leaves the science and math to churn in the background for a space-nerd like me to notice during the movie’s two-hour-plus run-time. Andy Weir wrote the original book so accurately that people used the timing of transfer windows to correctly calculate the year in which THE MARTIAN takes place. Incredibly, the movie shows just as much fidelity to science as its source material.

A bare few hackneyed tropes remain to sully the waters – at the climax, Watney’s crewmates are watching beautifully animated swooping displays rather than actual data. There is an obligatory “This is a slingshot maneuver” scene wherein a junior staffer stretches credulity to the breaking point by personally explaining the Oberth effect (badly) to senior NASA officials. The bog-standard slingshot maneuver is all that is ever mentioned, leaving aside phase angles, inclination adjustments, and other real math that could have been adequately masked by another character asking for layman’s terms to relay to the press.

When all is said and done, however, THE MARTIAN maintains its balance and capitalizes on its strength: Mark Watney. The landscape of modern sci-fi is heavily populated with philosophical, navel-gazing protagonists like Sunshine’s Capa or Interstellar’s Coop. Protagonists who are not of this cut are usually little more than survivors who are in over the top of their head, like Moon’s Sam and Gravity’s Ryan. In sharp contrast, Mark Watney is a smart-ass.

He emphasizes both parts of the word, too. When the going gets tough, Watney doesn’t panic or ponder the existence of humankind, he takes what he’s got on hand and starts problem-solving. Sometimes his solutions are clever in their simplicity, and sometimes they are imbued with inventive ingenuity. When the situation is under control, Watney cracks non-stop jokes. The humor is part second-nature to the man and part obvious defense mechanism against the inactivity of despair. Watney’s insistence on laughing in the face of a lingering, wasting death is the core of THE MARTIAN’s optimism and positivity.

The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. The story may be about Mark Watney’s journey home, but virtually every character gets their moment to shine. There are no villains in this movie, and only one antagonist – the harsh environment of Mars. At their worst, one character is somewhat obstructive, making risk-averse decisions and taking the cautious road with all decisions except one. Aside from that, every character gets their share of laughs and accolades.

Special mentions must be made of: Jessica Chastain’s wonderful portrayal of a skilled and responsible mission commander, Benedict Wong’s role as the amusingly beleaguered head of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a fantastic centering presence at NASA. Sean Bean even shows up in a fascinating side role as the Flight Director who is constantly overruled while advocating for his crew’s interests. His largely unacknowledged frustrations lend NASA a human quality in its understated flaws – even in THE MARTIAN’s idealistic world, not all is well in the realm of NASA’s bureaucracy.

psiy30cjjdohdtcic4mzqjxqhwk__largeThe Bigger Message:

On a grand scale, THE MARTIAN in both book and movie format is the latest in a growing and welcome trend of reasonably-realistic space travel being cool again. The fledgling SLS (Space Launch System) and its Orion spacecraft, commercial space travel, space tourism, SpaceX’s intent to colonize Mars, the recent media hurrahs around Curiosity, Rosetta and New Horizons, they all point towards a public that is fascinated anew by worlds beyond our own. Space is calling to humanity once more, and it has found a real, receptive audience for the first time since man shot for the moon.

Our media reflects this trend as much as it influences it – SUNSHINE (2007) basked in the grandeur and sobering inhumanity of space. MOON (2009) asked what human elements we might cast aside in the pursuit of space. GRAVITY (2013) reminded us that space is dangerous [citation needed]. Underneath its odd relationship with time and love, INTERSTELLAR (2014) asked the seven-billion person question that SpaceX is already attempting to answer: “Will we be ready when Earth evicts us?”

Perhaps most importantly, Kerbal Space Program has helped hundreds of thousands of gamers ask the question, “How hard can rocket science be?” Of course, the answer is “Very,” but the game has done much to develop a new crop of space enthusiasts like myself who are now paying more attention to the cosmos than ever before.

Similarly, THE MARTIAN features a healthy mixture of the new and the old from other movies about realistic space travel. The grandiose visuals and sense of immense challenge from INTERSTELLAR comingle with the unbeatable sense of optimism in the face of adversity from the classic APOLLO 13. Space is hard, THE MARTIAN says, but it is worth the effort and humanity is up for the challenge.

That human drive to do anything and everything to survive even in a hopeless situation must be instilled as a core value in generations to come if we are to bravely fling ourselves into space once more. Let us not retreat again back to terra firma. There’s too much universe to explore and too much science has yet to discover for us to cower on our pale blue dot.

THE MARTIAN opens in participating locations starting at 8 p.m. on Thursday, and nationwide on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.