The Martian‘s logline sounds like Castaway in space – a lone hero stranded in a remote location, cut off from civilization and desperate to find a way home.
Other elements are familiar too. Director Ridley Scott had arguably his biggest success with a movie set in space (Alien), as well a disappointing return to the genre recently (Prometheus). Heck, both Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain were in last year’s Interstellar, which trod similar ground and even had Damon playing an astronaut marooned on a distant planet in that too.
Yet The Martian (based on the self-published novel by Andy Weir) is content to blaze its own path, forging a unique identity amongst the recent resurgence in big budget brainy sci-fi (which includes the aforementioned Interstellar as well as 2013’s Gravity). Like those films, it’s about man’s struggle for survival in the face of overwhelming odds and the need to boldly go where no man has gone before, but The Martian is also refreshingly warm and often funny.
That’s not to say that there aren’t harrowing action sequences, as the film is bookended by two that showcase the choking peril and potential disasters that loom over every action in deep space. But it’s not the 90-minute thrill ride that Gravity ride was. The Martian takes time to breathe and builds its characters over time, giving the most screen time to Damon’s Mark Watney (obviously) at the expense of the rest of the expansive cast.
That cast includes the crew of the Ares 3 who, while on a planet side mission to Mars are forced to leave the presumed dead Watney behind as they flee a dangerous dust storm. As Ares 3 heads back to Earth (a journey that takes years) short one crew member, Watney finds himself in an impossible position as literally the only man on The Red Planet.
It’s largely Damon’s show and Scott was wise to cast him in the lead. Similarities to recent roles aside, Damon is eminently likeable and believable as a brainy guy (see his breakout Good Will Hunting). As much of Damon’s time is spent taking to the cameras in his Mars habitat, toiling alone, or generally just trying to survive it’s a marvel that he makes it all so watchable. Sharp writing (which streamlines the heavier science aspects while still being just on the right side of intelligent) helps immeasurably, as do lots of winking lines and pop culture references.
As a botanist, Watney’s uniquely suited to try and grow his own food to survive. And while there’s some thrilling processes explained, characters often handwave away the details in lieu of moving along the plot. When Watney’s backed into a corner he has to “science the shit out of this”, or when the Earthbound NASA head (played by Jeff Daniels) has to evolve a plan, he skirts the inspirational speech and tells his rocket scientists to just “do the math”. The Martian tries to have it both ways, sneaking in lots of hard science but making it palatable for the masses. It’s generally successful at the delicate balancing act, even if some will surely nitpick the details (I’m looking at you, Neil deGRasse Tyson).
With so much time spent on Mars and Watney’s plight, the Earth scenes have a lot of moving pieces to arrange, with some characters given short shrift. Jeff Daniels is gruff as the NASA head and Sean Bean is enjoyable as a crisis expert (rejoice – he survives the movie!). But comedic actors Kristin Wiig (as NASA’s head of PR) and Donald Glover (as a wunderkind rocket scientist) don’t fare as well.
The crew of Ares 3, headed by Jessica Chastain and featuring Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, sometimes feel like they’re in a different movie but are ingeniously brought back into the action in a third-act climax that should have audiences cheering (they did at my screening). And this movie’s so stuffed with great actors that I haven’t even mentioned Chiwetal Ejiofor (always great) and Mackenzie Davis as NASA specialists who spend much of the film trying to communicate with Watney.
There’s a lot to like about The Martian, as characters go about crunching the numbers in the brutal math that is survival. It’s an ode to science and a love letter to space exploration, one that’s arguably more successful than Interstellar in its clarity of vision, even its reach isn’t as ambitious.
At one point Daniels’ character is told that Watney is “only one man” – he’s not worth the risk. Daniels responds by stating that he’s everything, implying their efforts are towards not only rescuing a stranded astronaut but to prove to the world that the Mars missions and man’s exploration of space are a worthwhile endeavour. That boundless enthusiasm tied to deeply human emotions are what allow The Martian to soar.
The Martian (2015)
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 141 minutes