2015 / Best Actor / Best Picture

Film #526: The Martian (2015)

So here we are on to the second part of this look at the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year and we continue with a film that has already done quite well in the award’s race. Oddly though Ridley Scott’s space drama The Martian won two major awards in the comedy or musical category at the Golden Globes. Even though I was yet to see The Martian at the time of the Golden Globes I was aware it wasn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy and as far as I can recall I’d never seen star Matt Damon singing in any of the trailers.

In The Martian, Damon plays Mark Watney an astronaut who is stranded on Mars by his crew who leave him on the planet believing him to be dead. However, Watney survives and brings himself back to the crew’s living quarters eventually healing himself up and attempting to make contact with those who’ve left him behind. What is quite a simple concept is bolstered by a number of elements most notably Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s story which contains many witty one-liners. While Goddard’s script isn’t played for laughs the natural humour helps differentiate The Martian from other space dramas and gives it a unique tone. For the first hour or so, The Martian is purely focused on Watney’s attempts to survive on Mars and I felt this was the strongest portion of the film. Where it sort of got a little baggy for me was in its middle third which focused solely on NASA’s attempts to rescue Watney and their arguments over what was the best way to save him. This was the portion of The Martian which felt most like an Oscar film and was reminiscent of previous nominees Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff. It’s also where the film lost some of its wit and charm with a lot of the characters seeming rather po-faced and worthy rather than the well-rounded central character of Watney. There were also certain subplots that didn’t really feel fully-realised such as the romance between two of Watney’s crew-mates who eventually end up as parents at the end of the film. Luckily The Martian came into its own again in the final segment in which Watney’s crew return to Mars in order to save him. Director Ridley Scott perfectly amped up the tension by making us by making us believe that the crew may not be able to get to Watney in time thus giving the conclusion an edge-of-you-seat quality. However The Martian sent the audience home happy with every character finding their feet and Watney being safely despatched into a job teaching potential astronauts.

Initially when I saw The Martian’s name amongst the list of eight Best Picture nominees I was a little shocked as I believed it to be a sci-fi picture. However, upon watching it it’s clear that it’s another traditional Academy Awards drama albeit one that’s partly set in space. While not based on real life events, The Martian is close to Apollo 13 in tone especially during its baggy middle section. However it does have a freshness to it thanks to the Robinson Crusoe-esque sequences of Watney’s isolation on Mars as well as the lightness of the dialogue. Additionally I enjoyed the fact that the only music that Watney had to listen to on Mars was a collection of disco tracks left by Jessica Chastain’s mission commander Melissa Lewis. These songs perfectly juxtaposed Harry Gregson-Williams’ traditional score and added a different element to some of The Martian’s set pieces. Although it features in seven categories at this year’s Oscars I’m surprised that The Martian isn’t nominated for Best Cinematography as I found Dariusz Wolski’s camera work to be utterly superb. Wolski was fantastic at capturing the Jordanian desert that doubled for Mars and I thought that the shots towards the end of the film added to the tension of these scenes. Thankfully Goddard was nominated for his adapted script however director Ridley Scott wasn’t nominated for his role on the film which has to be one of this year’s biggest snubs. But the biggest praise of all has to go to Matt Damon whose performance as Mark Watney really elevates The Martian from a good movie to a great one. Damon is a charismatic presence throughout and is utterly captivating as he tries to survive for as long as possible. It’s telling of how good his performance is that the film lagged when he wasn’t around as ultimately The Martian is Watney’s story rather than of those on the ground. That’s not to say the supporting cast weren’t great and I was particularly impressed by the performance given by Kristen Wiig as NASA’s director of media relations. But this was Damon’s film and it feels fitting that he’s received only his second Best Actor nomination for his role as Watney.

Overall, while it lags during its middle section, The Martian was a really engrossing well-told film that combined a witty script with fantastic visuals. Praise must go to Ridley Scott for his assured direction and to Matt Damon for his compelling turn which made me really care about Watney. But despite everything I loved about The Martian one thing is crystal clear it’s neither a musical nor a comedy.

Next Time I’ll be looking at the latest collaboration between Oscar-favourites Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg in the form of tense drama Bridge of Spies.


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