<Review by: Sailesh Ghelani>
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes
While I get what The Martian was trying to achieve and I’m happy they didn’t go over the top with it, I couldn’t help wonder how this relatively slow-moving film could have been different if it had another lead actor.
And that’s not because I don’t like Matt Damon. He’s a great actor who’s been in some wonderful films. He’s solid, stable, dependable and your typical everyman. But he can also be a tad boring and monotonous.
In The Martian, Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, on a mission to Mars with his fellow specialists. But a storm on the planet forces them to evacuate in a hurry; equipment gets hurled about and hits Mark flinging him across a dark and sandy terrain. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) has to make a decision to leave him behind, thinking him dead so that the rest of the crew can escape safely. But of course, Mark is only injured and wakes up the next day to find himself quite alone and marooned on Mars, thankfully with a base station and enough rations for a while. But not enough till the next Mars mission, so he has to improvise.
The mood of the film goes from despair to optimism very quickly as Mark, a botanist who can also perform feets of engineering, grows potatoes in his own greenhouse fertilised with his own faeces. NASA realise he’s alive and formulate a plan to get supplies to him and eventually rescue him and this forms half of the plot of The Martian. The other half is Mark talking into the various Log cameras on the Mars station and in the Mars Rover and sometimes just talking to himself about science, the world and the irritating disco music left behind by Commander Lewis, which he still happily plays in the background.
What I can’t understand is why none of the scientists had tried to grow vegetables on Mars before he did. And why director Ridley Scott thought it was necessary to have an African-American man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) play an Indian named Vincent Kapoor. And how come they needed to introduce the Chinese to provide some piece of equipment to save the day, which ultimately wasn’t used in saving Mark. Just to appease the China and India markets I suppose. Like they did in Jurassic World. And are trying to do in countless other films and TV serials now.
The Martian is far less dramatic than the Award-Winning film Gravity (strangely, I’ve given that film four stars even though I liked The Martian better!) that starred Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s also more ‘grounded’ and couched in real science. Matt Damon’s emotions aren’t loud. And his slightly humdrum demeanour is alleviated by some humourous moments where he uses his dry wit instead of slapstick to ease the tension.
It’s reminiscent of the film Castaway with Tom Hanks, though Damon never really talks to a soccer ball or pulls out his teeth. He does talk to his rover and grow a beard though.
The parts showing his team on the way back from Mars and the people at NASA grappling to find quick solutions and communicate with Mark aren’t as convincing or grave as you’d imagine them to be. But then most American films about disaster have shown us that they like dealing with tragedy with humour and swagger.
Jessica Chastain gives a nicely subtle performance and you can see in her expressions that she is a leader who cares about her crew but also makes some tough decisions when she has to. Jeff Daniels comes across as the evil NASA President initially but he isn’t the villain.
There’s a wonderful scene at the end when Commander Lewis is out in space on a tether trying to reach out to Mark Watney who is floating in a shell of a rocket. The tension and goose bumps I felt watching that skyrocketed the film’s impact for me. It was that moment of climax that offset the slow pace of the first half, especially those scenes with Mark planning his life on Mars.
Director Ridley Scott has given us some of the greatest films of our times (too many to even put in brackets here) but The Martian isn’t the best of them. I keep wondering if a different actor had played the role, how differently it may have turned out. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. All I know is that while The Martian was riveting at points I thought it could have been shorter and perhaps a bit more scary considering he was alone on a whole planet. That’s what I didn’t get, the fear.