Past the Popcorn: The Martian is the Best Big-Screen Pic This Year

by Jeff Walls

Author Andy Weir first self-published his novel The Martian as a free online blog, before creating an Amazon Kindle version at the request of his fans. The Kindle version instantly became a best-seller and before long, Hollywood came calling.  The book has been described as something of a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway and that comparison is even more readily apparent when it comes to the film version.  Don’t mistake that for meaning that the movie feels like a retread, because it doesn’t; far from it, actually.  The Martian definitely stands out as an exhilarating experience on its own and is easily one of the best movies of 2015.

The movie wastes no time kicking off its plot as we meet astronaut Mark Watney and the rest of the crew of the Ares 3 mission as they collect samples on the surface of Mars.  When a big storm hits, they are forced to abandon their mission and escape the planet, but a destroyed satellite dish and antenna strikes Mark, separates him from his crew, and leads them to believe that he is dead.  They leave, as they must.  It turns out, however, that Mark did not die and now he finds himself stranded on Mars with no way to escape and no way to communicate either with his crew or with those back home on planet Earth.

the-martian-insetFrom there, the movie cuts back and forth between the two planets.  On Mars, we watch as Mark must not only come up with a way to communicate to NASA that he is still alive, but also to create enough food to keep him that way for as long as possible.  Back on Earth, an observant satellite researcher first begins to suspect that Mark is still alive when she notices a couple of strange anomalies in the satellite photos.  NASA then begins working around the clock to find a way to mount a rescue operation.

First and foremost, this movie does not work without the phenomenal performance of Matt Damon.  A large portion of the film is occupied by only his Mark Watney, who spends most of that time delivering exposition disguised as a video journal.  In the hands of a lesser actor, these scenes could have gotten tiresome and boring, but much like Tom Hanks in Castaway, Damon has a natural charisma that keeps us riveted and rooting for him.  Because we are rooting for Watney to survive, we are naturally rooting for the folks back at NASA to rescue him and those scenes—which strongly echo the NASA scenes in Apollo 13—are no less riveting.

The cast as a whole is terrific, certainly one of the best we’ve seen in a big-budget film recently.  There is no weak link in the cast, but in addition to Damon, the standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and a cleverly cast Donald Glover.

The movie looks stunning.  The Mars landscapes, which consist of footage shot in Jordan combined with computer imagery, are reminiscent of classic John Ford westerns.  The science is also on point (to the best of my knowledge, anyway).  Author Andy Weir strove to make the novel as scientifically accurate as possible and director Ridley Scott continued that effort through the filmmaking process.  According to a trivia bit on IMDB, technologically, everything in the movie is based on fact, but modified to “look cool” on screen.  Which, let’s face it, is exactly what we want out of these kinds of movies.

The fact that this movie was NASA-approved also adds to its authenticity.  Without the NASA brand appearing all over the spaceships, spacesuits, equipment, polo shirts, etc., the movie would have felt more like science fiction.  Even though it technically is science fiction, the presence of NASA helps the story feel more immediate and keeps us involved.

The Martian really is an impressive and entertaining movie from start to finish.  It is the first movie of 2015 that I have walked out of feeling that it had a legitimate shot of earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  It should also be one of this year’s fan favorites and likely will remain one for years to come.

The Martian opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!

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