It’s been nice to see, in the past 12 months, two science fiction movies – actually just two movies of any kind – that celebrate science itself. We rarely get enough of that in the real world, let alone the big screen, and yet both last year’s Interstellar and now The Martian take the position that being smart – being an intellectual – is a good thing. They show that scientific reasoning and logical deduction can be used to solve any problem the universe may throw at us. But while Interstellar concerned itself with a grand view on the fate of humankind – and came across a bit heavy-handed at times — Ridley Scott’s The Martian focuses on saving just one man, creating a thoroughly engaging and entertaining narrative around that mission.
That man is Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the botanist on board a manned mission to Mars who is accidentally left for dead and stranded when the crew has to take off suddenly from the planet’s surface during a destructive storm. By the time Watney recovers and secures himself inside the crew’s habitat, the spaceship Hermes and its commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) have already embarked on their long journey back to Earth. Only satellite images reveal that Watney has survived, and while he does everything he can to ensure that he lives as long as possible on the hostile Mars surface, the brain trust at NASA, led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), scrambles to find a way to rescue him while keeping his survival a secret from the crew of the Hermes, lest it distract them from their own dangerous voyage home.
The most refreshing and even exhilarating thing about The Martian is just how nerdy it is. We watch with wonder and more than a little awe as Watney goes about finding a way to feed himself once the mission’s food supply runs out, which involves using the crew’s abandoned waste products (i.e. their shit) to fertilize a little potato farm inside the habitat.
Meanwhile, back at home, Kapoor and his team think through ways to first regain contact with Watney and then retrieve him, plans that are challenged every step of the way by both mundane human concerns (Sanders is worried about funding and public relations, which go hand in hand) and the sheer amount of time involved (the next unmanned supply mission to Mars lands in four years).
Drew Goddard’s script – which is faithful to Andy Weir’s best-selling novel — lays out the narrative cleanly and with a lot of humor. It also might rely a little too much on Watney’s exposition-heavy “video log” for the first half of the film, but at least you know the cause and effect of everything that happens on the two planets.
The movie also avoids getting anyone, especially Watney, into any kind of existential funk; while he is occasionally defeated by some new, unforeseen set of conditions, he always gets back up and goes at the problem again. There is never any question that he is going to do whatever he can to survive as long as possible, just as there is no doubt (well, there is a little at first) that NASA will take whatever steps it can to get him home. That spirit is what drives the narrative in lieu of any real complexity or depth to Watney or the other characters.
That, if anything, is the Achilles’ heel of the movie: like a lot of Ridley Scott’s films (and apparently the novel itself), The Martian never delves especially deep into its characters. Even Watney lacks the real emotional resonance that could make the movie a genuine masterpiece (Interstellar strove for this but missed the mark for different reasons).
It’s not a fatal flaw by any means, and everyone in the cast does sterling work with what they’ve got, which largely amounts to archetypes. Damon is the perfect embodiment of an all-American astronaut, his natural charisma making the science go down easy while Ejiofor brings his typically powerful empathy and intelligence to a role that requires both in abundance. Daniels is positioned as the “villain” at first, but brings a subtle humanity to what could have been a cardboard cut-out, and just like he did in Ant-Man, Michael Pena does a little scene-stealing as Hermes crew member Rick Martinez.
Perhaps the real star of the show here, however, is Scott, who delivers his best film in years after a string of disappointments like Prometheus, The Counselor, and last year’s wretched Exodus: Gods and Kings. If it lacks that depth we mentioned earlier, it makes up for it in pure forward momentum, excitement and suspense.
For all its smarts, The Martian is no cerebral meditation; this is a crowdpleaser above all and Scott fills the screen with epic Martian vistas and dazzling setpieces, and makes even the scientific lectures fascinating to watch. The Martian provides a welcome antidote to the incoherence of Scott’s last sci-fi outing, Prometheus.
In fact, The Martian is top-notch entertainment all around, with an A-list of talent all bringing their best from start to finish. Scott, Goddard, the visual effects team, and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, along with Damon, Ejiofor, Daniels, Sean Bean, Pena and Chastain (a shout-out as well to the rest of the Hermes crew, which includes Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) spin a story which could easily get bogged down in tech-speak. Instead, it winds up being a tribute to the strength of human intelligence, the will to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds, and the resilience of the potato. To borrow one of Damon’s best lines, The Martian will science the shit out of you — but you won’t be bored for a minute.
The Martian is out in theaters Friday (Oct. 2).