The Martian is science-fiction in the most literal sense of the term. It’s essentially a big-budget ode to the scientific method, in which an enterprising astronaut marooned on Mars after a deadly sandstorm puts every ounce of his collegiate powers towards surviving and eventually returning home. Directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, the movie version of the popular Andy Weir novel meets the old-fashioned morality and classical simplicity of that story with awe-inspiring visualizations of a planet we may still one day get to know.
Rather than dwelling on the wonders of space, The Martian skips straight past the sense of discovery and plunges in as the characters treat the most foreign environments as a mundane workplace. In the opening scene, the five astronauts of the Hermes mission are deep into a harvesting session when they get word of an oncoming storm. They make their way towards shelter, but not soon enough. Four of them return to safety in time, but one, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), disappears, presumably asphyxiated to death.
But those presumptions are wrong. Mark is alive, saved by a metal rod jammed directly into his ribs. He crawls back to his station, turns on a webcam, and launches one of the movie’s uniting stylistic devices, a series of video confessionals which Mark uses as a canvas for equal parts verbal comedy, scientific inquiry and emotional support. After resolving to “science the shit” out of problems like rationing food and making contact with NASA, Mark sets to work harvesting his own excrement as fertilizer and charting a course for the abandoned Challenger spacecraft.
Meanwhile, down on the ground, a team of Hollywood elites…er, NASA employees played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Childish Gambino scramble to inform the public of Watney’s death, then grapple with how and when to inform Watney’s crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan and Kate Mara) that Mark is still alive, then finally cobble together a plan to rescue Mark and the space program’s reputation. In a welcome break from convention, Chastain plays Watney’s commander Melissa Lewis, who’s saddled with none of the idiotic baggage that often comes from being a woman in a male-led blockbuster (see Jurassic World, or rather, don’t). She’s smart, empathetic and as capable of returning Watney’s verbal jabs as she is at receiving them.
It’s a testament to Ridley Scott’s skillful direction and Pietro Scalia’s fleet editing that the earthbound scenes crackle with tension. The most exciting and inventive portions of the movie come whenever Mark is interacting with the hostile environment of the red planet. Conference room interludes in which men in suits debate matters of public relations inevitably feel like a comedown, but the presence of charismatic actors and the ticking clock of Watney’s depleted resources keep the movie’s pulse racing. (In particular, I’d like a spinoff starring Donald Glover as the off-kilter astrophysicist Rich Purnell.)
Mars and its lone human inhabitant are the title characters and most valuable players of this movie. Damon, for all of the boneheaded things he’s said in the press and on HBO in the last few months, is the ideal specimen for this part, armed with disarming likability and fully committed to the challenge of holding the screen entirely on his own. The stunning visuals do some of the work for him, with sweeping vistas and fearsome mountains both foreign and alluring captured by Dariusz Wolski’s sharp camerawork. But this movie wouldn’t work if you didn’t want to see Watney survive, and if you didn’t believe that his survival should be everyone else’s priority. Damon’s Watney is too bright, too charming, too ordinary to let perish.
Perhaps he’s a little too charming. My main issue with this movie is that you never feel Watney’s isolation quite as much as you’d have to imagine he would actually feel it were an actual person alone on Mars. He stays in remarkably good spirits for almost the entire time, and he doesn’t even seem physically battered by the experience until three-quarters of the way through. This aspect of the visual storytelling feels like a studio-enforced cheat. Luckily, it’s not severe enough to completely derail the experience. But it’s enough to wish the movie were less enamored with Watney/Damon than we’re supposed to be.
The most obvious recent corollary to this movie is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which left me cold despite awe-inspiring visuals and the presence of a similarly costumed Chastain. In that mind-bender, the goal was to go to space, find the answers and bring them back. Its pleasures hinged on thinking the answers were worth the journey. Here, there are no answers to seek, only problems to solve. The true thrill isn’t going to space, but leaving it. There’s a shot near the end involving a piece of rope tied to a spacecraft that left me with a lump in my throat. The true heroes are logic, reason and the humanity’s collaborative spirit. Mark Watney, by comparison, is just a tiny speck.