Drew Goddard film

The Martian Review: Optimism and Storytelling Chops Overcome All Obstacles

Monday, October 12, 2015 Rob Samuelson

The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

The Martian is a movie that trains its eye on the mechanics of storytelling and does not let go for an instant. It creates a cinematic experience that is relentlessly devoted to getting an audience from point A to point B as logically and expeditiously as possible. But also, along the way, this love letter to efficiency creates a warmth and pride in humanity that makes one feel a vast amount of pride for the accomplishments, both realized and still in our future, of homo sapiens.

And much of the heavy lifting is done not by The Martian's famous director, Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) but by screenwriter Drew Goddard, who co-wrote and directed what remains the best horror (probably the best comedy, too) film of the decade, The Cabin in the Woods. Goddard's writing, based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, crackles with the inherent fun of exploration and is filled with good humor. But above all else Goddard prays at the altar of functionality.

Every beat of the movie pivots on the introduction of conflict, resolution of a conflict, or the consequences of the preceding two things. And the script is happy to be obvious about this mechanized approach. Star Matt Damon, as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, has been left on Mars after an accident caused his crew to believe him dead. In a turn both pragmatic and revealing of character, Goddard's script gets Damon talking right away. The science station outpost Watney calls home for much of the movie is rigged with video diary cameras ostensibly for the scientists on the Martian surface to report their findings to NASA back at home. However, once his crew mistakenly leaves him behind, Watney (and the script) turns to the cameras to keep his mind busy and not go crazy from isolation. So he's stuck on a planet where nothing can grow, he tells the camera/confidant, but good thing he's the crew's botanist and he can figure out ways to farm himself some potatoes. And the script uses this trick, although sometimes not specifically Damon talking to the camera, over and over until the end of the movie. It's simple. It's elegant. It's baldly telling the audience what it is doing every step of the way and it is much to the film's benefit.

It's all basic Storytelling 101, but it is so habitually forgotten in all forms of entertainment that the way Goddard goes so hot and heavy on this stuff is worth applauding.

Even still, those mechanics would not be enough if they were all that drove The Martian. They can get a little too cute in certain moments, but luckily the movie has several aces up its sleeve. The characters, and the actors playing them, are what makes the movie sing. It is surprisingly not all the Matt Damon show, despite him being the rooting interest for the viewer. The movie takes long stretches to let the audience live with the other people in the NASA program, those who are trying to bring him home for reasons that are sometimes not entirely about concern for Watney's life and safety.

Jeff Daniels, as the director of NASA, is hardly a bad person and he wants to get Watney home safely, but his overall worry is whether the fiasco of leaving an astronaut stranded on Mars will end the program's government funding – for him, this is a terrible thing but he's concerned it will be used as a reason to put the kibosh on further human exploration. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Vincent Kapoor is another higher-up in the NASA hierarchy, but he has to deal with communication with Watney, thus giving him more personal urgency in the astronaut's return, despite his obligation to keep the program running. So on and so forth for every character in the movie. Each has differing shades of motivation and the qualifications each character places on what would be a “win” in this seemingly impossible rescue mission is the stuff of superb storytelling.

For all the time it takes to let the audience enter the mind space of the non-Damon characters, he is the driving force of everything. He is good-natured, proud of his accomplishments, and never stops believing in what he and others can do. These are fairly standard heroic attributes, but Damon, Goddard, and the director Scott take things further. There is an appreciation in Watney for everything he experiences. Even the most awful, disheartening, and frightening experiences fill him with awe in addition to their primary effects. Everything teaches him something and he is glad to learn it.

Watney is a character who trumpets a full-throated optimism, and The Martian as a whole does the same. It treats the ambition to learn more about the world around us as a self-evident good. And that's something to appreciate in itself.

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