The Martian Is This Year’s First Oscar Bait Blockbuster

The-Martian-Matt-Damon

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Will Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara and Donald Glover

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Rated: PG

Running Time: 2 Hrs, 21 Mins

Over the next few months, Cineplexes are going to be deluged with seasonal family fare, tent pole releases and a whole lot of “awards” movies, films released with the sole purpose of catching the attention of trendsetters and selection committees. And while it’s a rare film that can combine artistic success and box office power, it definitely looks like The Martian is that film for 2015.

Stranded on Mars after the rest of his crew believes him dead and are forced to abort their mission, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is faced with the beyond daunting task of surviving on the hostile red planet with dwindling supplies. He has to figure out how to grow food, produce water, keep the valuable equipment that’s keeping him alive working, survive the Martian climate and contact NASA to let them know he’s still alive and needing rescue. His days are soon filled with feats of engineering ingenuity and lessons learned through trial and occasionally comical error (“So yeah, I blew myself up.”).

Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA races against time to mount something resembling a rescue while balancing sensitive political concerns. Every choice is painfully scrutinized and not without consequences, particularly how they communicate the discovery of Watney’s survival to his the crew mates who left him behind. NASA soon faces their own enormous setbacks while Watney’s narrow window of survival continues to close.

Based on Andy Weir’s bestselling book of the same name, The Martian injects a heaping, Grand Canyon sized dose of science into the science fiction. At points it borders on daunting for the audience, but director Ridley Scott takes great pains to make sure it doesn’t become intimidating. If you could make it through an episode of Star Trek TNG with all of it’s signature techno-babble, you’ll be fine watching The Martian. It’s refreshing to watch the hero confront and overcome overwhelming odds with his brain and not an AR-17 and while the movie prevents the science from being overwhelming, it doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience either, trusting the viewer to understand the basic principals.

The Martian boasts an impressive ensemble cast, each actor fleshing out their role no matter how small. Damon’s scenes chew up about half the movie and he performs most with nothing more than a video camera and the Mars landscape as his foils (the camera is to The Martian what the volleyball Wilson was to Tom Hanks in Cast Away). It’s perhaps the furthest we’ve ever seen Damon stretch his acting muscles and it pays off as he’s more then convincing as an astronaut who’s devising ways to survive on an alien planet and even making us laugh from time to time. The film’s remaining screen time is devoted to the rest of the cast, who each make the most of their limited time (particularly Jessica Chastain and Will Daniels) despite the fact that every other actor is a mere satellite for Damon’s performance.

The Martian’s production values are Oscar worthy, simulating space travel, zero gravity and the Martian landscape probably as well as any production currently can. It also provides a realistic glimpse behind NASA’s curtain, showing how the space agency famed for spearheading human exploration and expanding the frontiers of knowledge is now hamstrung by budgetary restrictions and political considerations.

The Martian isn’t an action movie, so if you regularly invest your movie going dollars in explosion-ridded spectacles, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a survival movie, a hybrid of Cast Away and Apollo 13 with plenty of originality thrown in for good measure. The directing is solid, the acting excellent and plenty of special effects, but this is an intelligent science fiction movie with genuine science that doesn’t afford you the luxury of simply switching your brain off. It’s the struggle of one man choosing to survive in the worst kind of environment and the plight of an entire planet trying to help him millions of miles away.

It will be interesting to see how The Martian fares at the box office. Will its length and science heavy theme scare audiences away? Or will they embrace the intelligent, slowly unfolding story? The Martian promises to do for space exploration the same thing that Gravity did, reigniting the public’s imagination, even if only for a few fleeting moments. But one thing’s for sure, no one should be surprised to see The Martian or any of the names involved with its production getting well-deserved Oscar noms next February.

Shayne Kempton