The Martian review: Matt Damon brings disco and good fun to Mars

Mihir Fadnavis

Oct 05, 2015 12:00:19 IST

Yet another space exploration movie? With Matt Damon stuck alone on a planet? With Jessica Chastain millions of miles away, upset about him being marooned over there? Interstellar did all of this just ten months ago so why are we forced to watch the same movie again?

Turns out The Martian is not the same movie – it’s a completely different and surprisingly, a significantly better film in every way. A great return to form for Ridley Scott and written with a lot passion by Drew Goddard, The Martian is an incredibly smart and entertaining twist on the space movie as you know it.

Mark Watney (Damon) is part of a manned mission to Mars that includes commander Lewis (Chastain), Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris (Sebastien Stan) and Alex (Aksel Hennie). Things go smoothly, until they don’t, and Watney fails to make it to the space shuttle during an emergency evacuation. Later, back on Earth, NASA reports to the media that Watney has died, but of course, Watney wakes up covered in Mars dust, alone on the planet.

 The Martian review: Matt Damon brings disco and good fun to Mars

Matt Damon in The Martian. Image from IBN Live.

Here’s where The Martian separates from other space exploration films. This plot would generally lead to a depressing, soul-wrenching existentialist drama about a man dealing with certain death. Instead, The Martian becomes a hilarious black comedy. Watney doesn’t spend time weeping – he’s a wiseass who wisecracks his way through his video logs, as he figures out how he’ll survive and eventually get home. Watney’s source of misery isn’t the lack of food or oxygen, it seems.

It’s the cheesy retro music (say a cheer for disco!) and episodes of Happy Days that his colleagues have left behind. You’ll feel for him. Couldn’t they carry some quality modern entertainment like Breaking Bad or trance (Netflix, please consider a tie-up with NASA). Good luck keeping yourself from giggling uncontrollably when Watney poses like The Fonz from Happy Days during his first contact back home. You’d expect this moment to be poignant and sentimental, but you’re left rolling on the floor laughing.

The humour comes from the already excellent source material – the book by the same name by Andy Weir. All the expository monologues from the book are cleverly transposed into video logs in the film. It also helps explain the science to the audience. Watney simply breaks the fourth wall in a Goodfellas-like, matter-of-fact manner.

Most sci fi films often insult audience intelligence with ridiculous mumbo jumbo, but The Martian does the opposite. There’s a surprising amount of science at play here as Watney tries to build stuff, grow stuff and even blow up stuff to contact Earth and stay alive. Yet, it’s not science that is out of our reach. You may actually feel kind of stupid for not thinking of the seemingly simple solutions that Watney hits upon to solve seemingly unsolvable problems. All the hardware and software at play is grounded to realism – so much so that Watney tries to use a 1997 Mars Rover to establish contact, again to hilarious effect.

Just when you’re getting used to the film’s goofiness, Scott and Goddard pull the rug under your feet with surprising emotional heft. Watney loses food and weight. NASA fails repeatedly to come up with a viable rescue plan. Damon of course makes all this worthwhile and believable. His role in Interstellar now looks like a parody antithesis of The Martian. With his lovable Boston accent and eyes that still twinkle, he’s got the same charm and charisma that made him stand out in his debut film, Good Will Hunting. How old is this guy now? He never seems to age.

The secondary cast shines too – Kristen Wiig as NASA’s PR head gets to deliver a couple of jokes on how they messed up. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong are excellent as NASA head honchos, sweating to save Watney and dealing with bureaucracy and office politics. There’s a subtle undercurrent of space agencies using heroic feats as PR coups, a ballsy move by the filmmakers since most films portray NASA in hagiographic ways and this one had actually partnered with NASA.

Scott has never been known for comedic films, so his grasp on timing is a welcome change from all the serious stuff he’s done previously. His recent films have suffered because of lousy scripts, so teaming up with Cabin in the Woods’ Godard on such strong source material nicely complements Scott’s mastery over visual storytelling. The result is a very funny movie, with big sci fi spectacle, thrilling space exploration visuals and also a couple of life lessons. What more could you possibly ask for?

Updated Date: Oct 05, 2015 12:13:02 IST