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NYFF Review: The Martian Is Joyful, Smart Cinema

5 out of 5 stars.


Past summer and knee deep in festival/awards season, The Martian seems like an odd release for this time of year. In a lot of ways, it’s is the antithesis of the usual fall prestige film. It’s fun, and funny, and bright, and poppy. Even the soundtrack (lots of disco) is certainly not something we would see if the movie were being made from the perspective of being first and foremost “important,” rather than fun and entertaining. But as we saw with Mad Max: Fury Road this year, Hollywood finally might be understanding that a fun piece of pure cinematic entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid … and movies with critical and awards potential don’t have to be deadly serious. And for that, we can all be grateful The Martian arrives in theater when it does.

I’m sure a lot of you have seen the trailers and read the book (sorry, I haven’t yet, but I want to now), but for those who haven’t, here’s a little background on this exceptional movie: A team of astronauts on Mars is collecting data when a storm comes in and forces them to abort their mission. After Mark (Matt Damon) is hit during the storm, Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough decision to leave him behind to save the rest of the crew (Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Sebastian Stan). But Mark happens to only be hurt, not dead, and when he wakes, he’s been left behind on the Red Planet. Fortunately, he’s the botanist, so the one thing he is very equipped to do is grow food for survival until they can send a mission to save him. The question is, “How NASA will get to him in time?”

This is a Ridley Scott film, and after last year’s very, very bad Exodus: Gods and Kings, it’s a wonderful and surprising breath of fresh air from the director. It’s funnier than any of his previous movies (including some of his “comedies” like Matchstick Men and A Good Year). The pacing is just about perfect, allowing what could be an unbearably long runtime (2+ hours) to pretty much fly by, and it keeps your interest from beginning to end. The visuals of the film are all inspired and have bright and colorful hue that matches the overall tone. And most importantly, this movie is smart AND fun and never sacrifices one for the other. We can thank screenwriter Drew Goddard of Daredevil for a lot of that success; sure would be nice if they campaigned him for best adapted screenplay.

I have to be honest that Matt Damon is an actor I’m right down the middle about, but this is my favorite performance of his career so far. He rides the line right between too cocky to stand and too precious to laugh with. And considering the number of angsty superheroes we’ve seen in recent years—not to mention last year’s Interstellar—seeing a character who survives by being resilient rather than wallowing feels far more realistic for the scenario. As for the crew and NASA, Scott finds the perfect way to develop the supporting characters’ personalities and flesh them out without forgetting the almost procedural elements of the film.

Jessica Chastain is back to her tough, smart, Zero Dark Thirty ways, and considering how good she is in this role, it makes me almost mad to think of how underused she felt in Interstellar. But all four of the crew members are distinct and memorable (Mara gets more to do in this than Fantastic Four) without having to get into personal backstories, which would be out of place in this kind of story. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent alongside Sean Bean (don’t worry) and Jeff Daniels, even if he is getting typecast as “the serious Alec Baldwin.” There are also familiar faces of character actors such as Mackenzie David, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, and Benedict Wong who play smaller roles, and whose presence benefits the film by coming in, delivering a good scene, and making their characters memorable.

The remarkable thing about The Martian, and why it really excels as a pure cinematic experiences is how beautifully everything works together. I wasn’t prepared for how funny the movie would be (it earns big, big laughs), and because of those laughs, the emotional moments hit you harder. The characters and stories support one another total, and the visuals (as striking as they are), are never pushed to the front.

Yes there are a few moments of wide-shots when you appreciate the gorgeous landscapes (space) created for the film, but the sense of awe you feel is on behalf of the characters and excitement of the story, not the tech involved in this computer animation (even though it is all pretty flawless). No one is going to say they’re seeing this movie only for the effects, no matter how impressive they really are. I saw it in IMAX 3D and am glad to state that while that format is certainly worth the money for this specific movie, I also can’t imagine people being disappointed if they saw it on a standard screen. Just go see it and enjoy it any way you can.

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