The Martian: a unique twist on a classic theme

Eric Thiem

More stories from Eric Thiem

Ridley Scott, the director of award-winning space epic “Alien,” has done it again with his latest hit “The Martian,” this time blending a light-hearted tone with a plausible premise to create his next motion picture masterpiece. Along with writer Drew Goddard’s impeccable adaptation of the original novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian” is an instant science fiction classic as well as a shoo-in for numerous cinematic awards.

The movie has done exceedingly well in the box office; since its release on Friday, October 2, the movie has topped the box office for two consecutive weekends, pulling in $54.3 million in the initial weekend release. The success of “The Martian” can be attributed to the recent popularity of epic space exploration films such as “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” as well as the success of the original novel which reached number 12 on the 2014 New York Times Bestseller list.

Set in the near future, “The Martian” tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is presumed dead and left behind on Mars by his crew after a Martian storm. The movie details his struggle to survive, combatting problems that range  from a depleting food supply to depressurization of his mission’s artificial habitat.

The story is one that has been around for ages: survival against all odds. What really defines “The Martian,” however, is the personality Damon imparts into Mark. Although in the novel, Watney’s neverending upbeat and humorous attitude could be off-putting and seemingly inhuman at times, both Goddard and Damon worked hard to make the lonely astronaut display a range of real, complex human emotions while still maintaining his witty and likable exterior.

Damon’s portrayal of Watney brings the character to life on screen, but that same fictional man literally owes his life to a great ensemble of supporting characters. The actors and actresses for these side roles do a phenomenal job supplementing Damon’s excellent performance. Jessica Chastain, who played a similar character in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” returns to the sci-fi genre as the clever and analytical Captain Lewis. Donald Glover also briefly shows his face to save the day as astrodynamicist and “steely-eyed missile man” Rich Purnell, giving a flawless performance of a sleep-starved yet genius physicist always searching out his next caffeine fix. Similarly, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña and Chiwetel Ejiofor all do an amazing job helping the stranded astronaut get home.

Although the combination of characters and attitudes is what made “The Martian” a best-selling novel, it is also the very thing that makes the film hard to follow at times. As a book, Weir had time to flesh out all his characters, giving each crew member, researcher or public relations woman their own personality. The novel as a medium allowed the time and space to detail a very large and diverse group of characters. However, as with most book-to-film adaptations, a two-hour movie cannot emulate this level of character development; this one still appeared to attempt just that. It seemed as if every few minutes a new name of a director or researcher flashed by on the screen, each one adding to an ever-growing list. By the end, these new characters were all but ignored and forgotten because of their seeming insignificance.

Although the graphics and cinematography can’t quite match up with 2013’s visually stunning “Gravity,” the sweeping shots of Mars, Earth and open space in “The Martian” are beautiful and vibrant, helping to add a sense of serenity to an often complex and fast-moving plot.

Overall, “The Martian” is a spectacle to watch, and Watney’s humor in even the most dire situations is a refreshing take on a genre that’s often too bland or too dark.