When astronauts blast off from the planet Mars, they leave behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead after a fierce storm. With only a meager amount of supplies, the stranded visitor must utilize his wits and spirit to find a way to survive on the hostile planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, members of NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring him home, while his crew mates hatch their own plan for a daring rescue mission.
'The Martian' turned out to be one of my favorite films of last year, but I certainly didn't expect it to be so going into my first viewing. While I had not read the Andy Weir novel upon which the movie is based (and still haven't), I was pretty wary about the fact that Ridley Scott had been picked to helm the picture. While I'd never question Mr. Scott's technical abilities as a filmmaker, I've been less than satisfied by most of the movies he's directed over the past 20 or so years. I mean you're talking to a guy who still doesn't understand all the fuss about Gladiator, which I still think is pretty mediocre.
Well, color me amazed. Not only is 'The Martian' a tremendous achievement for Ridley Scott and all involved, but there's a sense of lightheartedness and fun here (among dire circumstances to be sure) that I don't think has been present in any of Ridley's prior movies. Yes, a lot of that no doubt is due to Weir's novel (and the screenplay by Drew Goddard), but Mr. Scott should get a lot of credit as well. I don't know if this is Ridley's best movie ever, but it's got a strong argument for being his most crowd-pleasing.
The movie stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded on the red planet when the remainder of the crew – believing he is dead – launches their rocket back towards Earth during a brutal Martian storm. Left behind, Watney must use his scientific knowledge to figure out a way to survive on Mars until a rescue mission can be mounted back at NASA. While most writers would have delved into the horrors of such a predicament, both Weir's book and Goodard's screenplay present Watney as a man of extreme exuberance. His intelligence is only matched by his sense of humor, and Damon is delightful in the role – a performance that won him the Golden Globe and got him nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.
But Watney's dilemma makes up for only half the drama here. Back on Earth, a NASA team led by Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) must decide what – if anything – to do about Watney. One of the first decisions is not to tell the returning crew from Mars about him, as it would only prove to distract them on their return back home. Even more though, Sanders is forced to juggle the desire to rescue Watney with the very real limitations of both the scientific logistics of rescuing him and the budgetary abilities of NASA to do so. In any other movie by any other team of filmmakers, it would have been very easy to turn Daniels' character into a bad guy...giving the audience someone to root against. But 'The Martian' smartly avoids any familiar Hollywood tropes here, allowing Sanders to be an extremely well-rounded and even sympathetic character that the audience can relate to, even if they don't always agree with the decisions he's making.
About the only thing that does seem 'Hollywood' about 'The Martian' is the scene in which Watney's rescue is performed (I hope it's not a spoiler...but did you really think they weren't going to rescue him?). Again, not having read the book, I'm not sure if the depiction is accurate to the novel or exclusive to the screenplay, but there are a few too many things that have to go precisely right that result in a climax that seems as much good luck as it does scientific ingenuity, which slightly dampers the theme of human innovation that runs throughout the movie. It's a nitpick to be sure, but after all the movie had put these characters though, I think it would made for a more realistic ending if the filmmakers had just allowed the rescue plan to go off without a hitch. Again, it would have fit the anti-'Hollywood' feeling that so much of the movie had up until these final scenes.
But let there be no doubts: 'The Martian' is a wonderful movie, and quite possibly the best movie to be set on Mars that has ever graced the silver screen (sorry, Total Recall!). It's certainly the kind of movie that holds up to repeat viewings and even more than that – it's just so nice to see a film that embraces science the way this film does...proof that a movie can be both smart and an audience pleaser at the same time.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Martian' lands on Blu-ray in an eco-friendly keepcase, which houses the 50GB disc along with an insert containing a code for a digital copy of the movie (the flip side of which has an advertisement for Andy Weir's novel). A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop. There are no front-loaded trailers on the Blu-ray. The main menu is designed to look like a computer readout screen that might be used in this movie, with a video montage of scenes from the film playing on it. Menu selections run across the bottom of the screen.
In addition to this release, 20th Century Fox is also offering a 3D version (which includes the standard 2D and Digital HD copy), as well as including the movie as one of their first-ever 4k home video releases (which also comes with the standard 2D Blu-ray and a Digital HD copy, but not with the 3D Blu-ray).
Although the packaging is labeled for Region A, the Blu-ray is actually region-free.
'The Martian' was shot digitally with both Red Epic Dragon and Red Scarlet Dragon digital equipment. The 'video diary' and other video camera shots seen in the movie made use of GoPro Hero4 equipment. The movie is presented here in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, which is just a tad opened up from its 2.35:1 theatrical presentation, although hardly discernable on home video (indeed, most 2.35:1 films get released at 2.40:1 on Blu-ray).
As Blu-ray transfers go, 'The Martian' is pretty impressive, with natural-looking skin tones and a level of depth and detail in almost every shot. I was worried that the deep oranges and browns of the Mars landscape would lead to either bleeding or banding on home video, but those shots look great here. Most of the other shots both the interiors of the Mars base and the footage that takes place back on Earth – has the teal/bluish look to it that so many movies these days seem to use as a color palette. Those shots look great as well, although it would have been nice if the scenes back on Earth had been a little warmer in tone – but there's no lack of detail to those parts. The only footage that suffers a bit is the footage you'd expect to – the scenes involving use of the GoPro cameras, which are part of Watney's video diaries and his communications back to Earth.
This all adds up to a transfer that's just short of reference quality, but wonderfully impressive nevertheless. Viewers won't be disappointed.
The featured audio track here is a 7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio that will really show off one's home theater and which I'm giving a reference quality ranking. Not only is there noticeable and distinct separation for 'The Martian's more quiet moments, but some wonderful surround use and LFE booms during the movie's more action-packed sequences. Those disco tunes peppered throughout the movie sound pretty great too, for the record. While dialogue is primarily front and center, it's clearly rendered and – thankfully – mixed properly with the rest of the track. There's also a noticeable sense of immersion provided throughout the film. This is some fantastic audio, and even though it's quite early in the year, I doubt we're going to get a much better sounding release in 2016 than 'The Martian'.
In addition to the 7.1 lossless track, the Blu-ray also contains a 5.1 English Descriptive track, as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, Spanish, French Portuguese, and Chinese.
One of my favorite films of 2015, 'The Martian' is a winner not only because of the sense of joy and wonderment it provides viewers, but because it's one of the few Hollywood releases that unashamedly promotes science and doesn't fall into the typical Hollywood trappings of insisting on having a 'bad guy" to root against. The only thing keeping this release from 'Must Own' status is the selection of bonus materials, which – while enjoyable – are pretty slim overall. Regardless, this title is still highly recommended on any planet.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.