Humans have long since been fascinated with space. There is a deep desire to discover what has previously been unknown, and a deep longing to connect with what has previously been untouched. Though brave men and women have ventured out into our vast universe, we still know very little. Instead, we are left to speculate about what we believe might be true. Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” marks the third major “space film” to come out of Hollywood in the past three years, following 2013’s “Gravity” and 2014’s “Interstellar” which were both extremely successful. However with its expansive cast and focus not just on human survival, but on guilt and fear, “The Martian” is by far the best of the three.
In the midst of aborting a mission due to a horrendous storm on Mars, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is separated from his crew. Though his crew leader Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) tries desperately to find him despite harrowing winds and obscured vision, her quest proves unsuccessful. Working under the assumption that he’s dead, his fellow crewmembers abandon Mars and begin their 10-month quest back to Earth. Only Watney isn’t dead.
Prior to “The Martian”, I would have never been convinced that Matt Damon could carry a film in which he was alone for large chunks of it. However, set against director Ridley Scott’s stunning red deserts depicting Mars’ atmosphere, Damon forces the audience to empathize with Watney. As the lone being on a planet, he’s astonished to be alive, and completely haunted by the idea of his impending death. Time certainly isn’t on his side. It will take 4 years for a new crew to get to Mars to retrieve him, and he only has enough food to last him a year.
Though Matt Damon gives a great performance, it’s the ensemble characters that set “The Martian” apart from the other recent films that were set beyond our planet. Michael Peña, whom I’ve always felt was severely underused in films, stars as Astronaut Rick Martinez. As usual, he’s wit and comedic brilliance brings light and warmth to the confined space ship of Watney’s team members.
Donald Glover also has some fantastic moments. As the talented but off-kilter Rich Purnell, Glover gets the nuances and neurosis of a brilliant scientist who doesn’t quite grasp the skill of everyday conversation. Despite his “quirks” Rich Purnell’s role in the film is imperative.
Back at headquarters, the always-stellar Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Mars missions director Vincent Kapoor. When NASA discovers that Watney is alive, Kapoor finds himself between a rock and hard place. The space crew doesn’t know that Watney has survived and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) doesn’t seem too keen on telling them.
“The Martian” is truly a psychological ride. While Watney deals with his own trauma, his crew struggles to come to terms with the fact that they’ve essentially left him for dead. Meanwhile Kapoor is wrestling with his own turmoil. Ejiofor is really able to capture Kapoor’s fears and indecisiveness via his facial expressions. So often as human beings, we try and do the “right” thing, but the “right” thing isn’t always the best thing. This can be especially difficult when there are so many voices and opinions to consider.
Working with an ensemble cast of extremely powerful actors can be tricky, but Ridley Scott really hit a sweet spot here, achieving appropriate equilibrium. The film works well because it’s able to toggle effortlessly between earth and what lies beyond. The audience is always aware of Watney’s plight but Scott also gives us a real glimpse into the interworkings of a colossal organization like NASA.
“The Martian” is a film about human error, the will to survive, and the responsibility that we have as human beings, not just to the work that we dedicate our lives to, but to one another as people.
It opens nationwide today, October 2, 2015.
Watch Chiwetel Ejiofor discuss the film and his character below.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami