September 12, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Review: “The Martian”


Ridley Scott’s THE MARTIAN is the jaunty sci-fi offspring of Apollo 13 and McGyver, Scott’s least self-important movie in years and not coincidentally his most enjoyable.  Drew Goddard’s expertly crafted script (based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir) has a premise both simple and massively complex:  during a giant sandstorm on the surface of Mars, the mechanism that transmits astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) bodily readings is destroyed, and the crew, believing him to be dead, abandons him along with their mission.  But Watney isn’t dead, and he swiftly realizes that in order to survive on a planet without oxygen, water or food long enough for NASA to send him supplies, let alone a rescue vessel, he’ll have to “science the shit out of this.”  So will a legion of brilliant minds around the world.

At another point, Watney explains that the way to move forward in a dire situation like his is to take each challenge one at a time, treating it as a mathematical puzzle to be solved.  That’s also the approach Scott and Goddard take.  With what appears to be plausible logic, and just the right amount of technical jargon so we can sort of understand what’s going on without getting lost in the weeds, we follow Watney and eventually his colleagues on Earth and fellow crew members, as they piece together each solution to the multitude of problems that have to be figured out.  With so many issues to be dealt with, the movie’s 145 minutes fly by.

Even though there are any number of potentially deadly crises along the way, and Scott pulls the maximum suspense out of each of them, The Martian is a consistently cheerful story that takes its tone from Matt Damon’s performance (or vice versa):  if this can-do American hero, played by one of the most likable actors of his generation, isn’t giving up, how can anyone else?  Goddard’s script sprinkles a fair amount of humor out of the stress, including Watney’s disgust at the only music he has available, the mission commander’s (Jessica Chastain) disco collection.

The Martian gains additional buoyancy from its cast, which is reminiscent of an Irwin Allen disaster movie in the best possible way:  almost everyone who appears on camera is someone we’re happy to spend time with.  That includes Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the often conflicting senior members of NASA leadership (and Kristen Wiig as one of the aides), as well as Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara among Damon’s crew.  Even small key roles are filled by welcome faces like Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis and Community‘s Donald Glover.  No one gets much backstory, not even Watney, and there’s little soul-searching–the movie’s message is that there’s too much work to be done.  (It’s a relief after the death-of-a-child motif that brought “seriousness” to Gravity.)

Not unexpectedly, Scott also directs the shit out of the material.  Dariusz Wolski provides cinematography that flawlessly blends desert locations, soundstages (the production design is by Arthur Max) and what must have been an immense amount of CG to create a convincing red planet, and Scott’s use of 3D is a reminder that the technology can be more than a gimmick in the right hands, here conveying a sense of the sheer scope and emptiness of Watney’s adopted planet.  Editor Pietro Scalia, another old Scott hand, keeps the movie revved up without feeling rushed.

The Martian doesn’t trouble itself too much with depth; it’s just a great yarn, even an inspiring one, smartly told.  It has a sense of adventure that puts most superhero movies on a far-off planet.




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."