Space seems to be having a moment. It’s always been there, in real life and in the movies, but it seems 2013’s “Gravity” took space to a whole new level cinematically. If “Gravity” was Alfonso Cuaron’s call to the final frontier, The Martian is Ridley Scott’s response and an attempt to reclaim his territory after 2012’s not so critically acclaimed “Prometheus”. Mix in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014) and we’ve got ourselves a little trinity of (recent) epic space dramas. “The Martian" stands out for its own reasons, but it also fits right in.
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is all alone. Left behind on Mars after being separated from his crew during an emergency evacuation, Mark is presumed dead by his fellow crew mates and NASA. This all changes when satellite images from Mars prove Mark is very much alive and somehow surviving on the barren planet. The rescue mission begins, but it will be no easy feat. Time, funding and Mars’ atmosphere are all working against every effort to bring Mark home.
“The Martian” essentially takes place in three different locations. There is Mark’s Mars, a vast rust-colored landscape captured through sweeping extreme wide shots. Next, there’s Planet Earth, which is essentially the various offices and airplane hangars of NASA. And finally, there is space — where Mark’s crew is aboard a shuttle, completing their next mission. This separation works in favor of the film in that we stay in each area just long enough to build a decent amount of anticipation for our return to the next location. This is especially important considering the isolation of Damon’s performance on Mars. With no one to interact with, Damon’s Mark is a one-man show. He cracks jokes, airs his frustrations and explores his surroundings all by himself. While Damon is fun to watch, Matt Damon all by himself does not a movie make. The plot points presented in the other two locations (NASA and the shuttle) give Mark’s solo mission the tension it needs to move forward.
A major setback for Mark on Mars eventually creates a sense of much-needed urgency for the film and for Mark’s rescue mission. Mark has been able to “science the sh*t” out of his time on the planet, but in the end his stay on Mars becomes a life or death situation. A cooky, so-crazy-it-could-work plan is playfully delivered by a nerded-out Donald Glover and NASA is given the choice to either abandon Mark or put the lives of his crew members in danger in order to rescue him.
For an almost two and a half hour long film, The Martian does provide enough thrills and nerd-talk to satisfy the space movie lover in all of us. And on a much deeper level, there is some interesting commentary on our society’s dependence on technology — Mark is presumed dead because the technology on his suit fails to communicate his vital signs to his team — which would make for a fantastic college paper. Personally though, Armageddon still stands as this reviewer’s top film about space.