The Martian is one of the films that escaped me in 2015, which is insane because it became one of the biggest hits of the year, a popular Oscar contender, a hated Oscar contender, and a Golden Globe winning comedy, somehow. Yet I ultimately saw it for the first time this month. Better late than never. The Martian in question actually an earthling astronaut and botanist named Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars after getting swept away during a very convenient storm and he must survive for at least 4 years before his rescue. Annoying weather aside the film is actually a fun and well-made survival tale and space procedural that recalls Apollo 13 but replaces the sentimentality with witty optimism.
The key to a great procedural, especially one revolving around hypothetical science, is that the procedure—in this case, the science behind traveling to and surviving on Mars—must be engaging without compromising the details, and The Martian succeeds wonderfully. The use of Mark Watney’s web cam footage allows the character to essentially breathe exposition without feeling invasive, it also helps that Matt Damon’s performance of Watney sells the techno-babble with a funny and laid back persona, think Chris Hadfield meets Tony Stark. This expands further in the scenes in NASA where plain terms and “show & tell” rule the day.
Another key factor is the art direction and aesthetics of the film. Like in Ridley Scott’s films Blade Runner and Alien, the art direction is impeccably immersive, but in contrast to the bleak space of those films, every piece of scenery of The Martian builds a world where science is building the future. Earth in this film is a grounded interpretation of future; the future tech is clean and simple, which exemplifies the efficient nature of NASA. The space ship calls back to the sterile layouts of Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The best sequences are still the ones that take place on Mars, which looks like the Monument Valley in a John Ford western. When Watney walks along the red foothills, he is the loneliest frontiersman imaginable, but each step also feels so triumphant because of where he is standing.
The Martian is a solid film, and one that was arguably unfairly scrutinized during that chaotic awards season. It is unassuming compared to traditional Oscar fare—especially to self-important junk like The Revenant—which is often confused for being workmanlike. Nevertheless, The Martian is good blockbuster that feels wonderfully familiar and inspired at the same time. It would not have changed my annual top ten, but it stands comfortably next to Bridge of Spies as a classically made film that is worth remembering.
(The Martian is available on Blu-ray/DVD. It also recently came out in the newfangled 4K disc format, which is ultra-high definition. 4K is a tempting purchase but please make sure that your television and player is actually physically capable of playing in this format before buying the film.)