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Review: The Martian

By Jason Herring, October 2 2015 —

Last year at the University of Calgary, first-year engineering students had to complete a book report on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian. The highly technical work of science-fiction follows an astronaut who finds himself stranded on the planet Mars. The book has now been adapted into a star-studded blockbuster film directed by Ridley Scott, who turns the novel into an exciting movie without sacrificing too much science or realism.

Of course, realism is a relative word here. The concept of the film is far-fetched to begin with. Matt Damon — who plays sardonic astronaut Mark Watney — is left behind on the red planet by his crewmates after he’s struck by shrapnel during a dust storm and left for dead. It’s an easy to understand concept that sets The Martian up for a rewarding Cast Away-style narrative, as Watney struggles to survive on limited supplies until NASA can send up another ship to rescue him.

Elsewhere, the film follows NASA headquarters back in Texas as they deal with the public-relations nightmare of having a team member stranded on another planet. Even more drama comes from members of Watney’s crew on the spaceship that left him behind, with particularly strong performances by Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara.

Though exciting through the majority of its runtime, aspects of The Martian can be draining. Dramatic segments of the movie build up far longer than is necessary, and the film falls into a formulaic pattern by its second act, as Watney is repeatedly faced with a problem before coming up with an ingenious solution and a wry comment to go along. This pattern works to varying success — most of the time, Watney’s problems are logical and his solutions are clever. But at other times, it just feels like drama for the sake of drama.

Another great thing about The Martian is that it doesn’t condescend when developing the scientific side of its plot. Watney’s solutions are ingenious, ranging from setting up an indoor greenhouse and using chemistry to create his own water to using hexadecimal numbers to facilitate verbal communicate with Earth. It was satisfying to see solutions like that explored fully and in an easy to understand manner, unlike the pseudo-science occasionally seen on shows like The Big Bang Theory.

Contrary to Scott’s earlier masterpieces like Blade Runner or Alien, The Martian lacks a defining and complex thematic core. But that’s not a huge deal — this isn’t supposed to be a movie with a grand, sweeping statement. The Martian remains fun to watch while still maintaining an impressive scientific grounding and a few fleshed-out characters.

Curiously, the movie’s release coincided with NASA’s Monday, Sept. 28 announcement that they had found definitive evidence of liquid water on Mars. The space agency has been promoting The Martian heavily, but that’s not a bad thing. Movies like this are important for more than their entertainment value — they intrigue youth and inspire them to pursue careers in science and engineering. And that’s where the The Martian‘s real strength lies.

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