Take a breath, pick yourself up, mutter a sarcastic comment, move forward. Seems simple, don’t it. So why do most of us struggle with the formula, especially when the chips are down.
THE MARTIAN is the story of NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a member of the Ares III mission to Mars. While surveying the planet’s surface, Watney and his team get caught in a freak sandstorm, one powerful enough to prompt orders to abort the mission and evacuate the planet. As the team falls back, a piece of equipment is hurtled at Watney, seemingly killing him on impact. As it happens, Watney isn’t dead – his vitals just said he was.
It’s up to Watney to figure out how to make his survival known, and eventually up to NASA to figure out how to bring their boy back.
There’s always a level of difficulty that comes with a story like THE MARTIAN. When the heavy lifting of the narrative is being done by one character, there’s always the possibility that things can become stagnant. Too much of one person in one place with not so much as a volleyball to play off can feel like the movie has its feet stuck in the mud. Happily, THE MARTIAN gets around this problem in a few ways. The first is to strike the right balance of Watney doing things and telling the mission log what he’s doing. This allows for Watney to avoid muttering to himself for a good chunk of the film’s runtime, and also presents an avenue for Damon’s charming smartassery to come through.
That smartassery is emblematic of THE MARTIAN’s tone overall, which is one that never gets too bogged down in melodrama. While the film does carry moments of high tension…especially in the film’s commencement and conclusion…it tends to wallow there, instead realizing that a well-timed joke or a silly soundtrack selection can provide a balance to all that tension that too many dramatic tales eschew. It keeps momentum up, and adds a rewatchability factor to the film overall.
A longer piece about this movie and its ideas will come when it gets a wide release, but for now I’m going to break from form somewhat and compare the film to the massively popular book. If pressed, I would say that I preferred the book to the film. Watney faces more than one challenge in the book that were excised from the film for reasons of pacing. For my money, both of them are very high drama and are situations I really wanted to see come to life. In addition, there are large swaths of the film where Watney seems to be taking a backseat to the action going on back on Earth and onboard Hermes. These digressions are in the book as well, but for some reason, in the film, they seem to affect the balance of the narrative a little more than they did in the book.
These are only qualms that affect the book-versus-film debate, and in no way take away from a truly entertaining movie. THE MARTIAN is a sign that Hollywood is still capable of making blockbusters that are both fun and smart; that one doesn’t always need to check their brains at the door when buying a bucket of popcorn.