Every movie critic wants to stand out from the crowd. There’s a joy that comes from trashing a highly popular film, and a righteous pleasure from praising a film that was critically panned or generally ignored. But lauding a film that’s cheered by both critics and moviegoers feels a little superfluous, as we’re telling people what they already know. Nevertheless, here I am to tell you that The Martin is just as good as critics and audiences alike have proclaimed. It’s a tense, dramatic story of human ingenuity and the will to survive that feels like a mashup of Apollo 13, Gravity, and Cast Away, but funnier and generally more fun than any of its predecessors. The result is a film that takes tried and true storytelling tropes and makes them feel fresh and entertaining, all anchored by a standout performance from Matt Damon, making The Martian director Ridley Scott’s best film in over a decade.
In the near future when NASA has successfully launched a series of manned missions to Mars, a massive storm on the surface forces the Ares III team to cut their mission short. But during the evacuation, a piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney, knocking him out of sight in the storm and forcing the crew to leave him behind believing him to be dead when his bio readout goes flat. Watney, however, survives and is now stranded and injured on Mars with no hope of rescue until the next scheduled mission arrives in four years. In order to last for four years, far beyond the planned duration of the mission, he’ll have to figure out a way to sustain his habitat’s power and oxygen supply, learn to grow food in Mars’ dead soil, scrap together a method to communicate with NASA, and eventually make a dangerous, long-distance trek across the landscape to the landing location of the next mission. Of course, that’s all after he performs emergency surgery on himself to remove the antenna with which he was impaled.
Back at home, NASA has to deal with the fallout of an abandoned mission which left behind a dead astronaut. While the Ares III team makes their months-long journey back home, Earth mourns the loss of Watney, complete with a memorial in his memory and a corresponding jump in the public’s opinion of NASA. But when a satellite image shows signs of movement around the supposedly abandoned mission site, NASA engineers and executives start to ask questions. Is Watney alive? How did he survive? How long can he last? Can they communicate with him, or send him more supplies until another mission can bring him home? How will the public react to the news? Should they tell the returning crew, who will be wracked with guilt for leaving Watney behind?
The Martian is as much a problem solving film and a celebration of engineering as it is a testament to the human spirit. Watney spends very little time frustrated or upset at his situation, instead devoting all of his energy to tackling the next issue. As a botanist and mechanical engineer, he has the skills and the knowledge to work his way through some of his immediate problems, while the brilliant minds at NASA try to sort out the more long-term challenges. It really does take some of the best aspects of the three movies I mentioned above (each excellent separately) to combine them into something both familiar and unique. Take the sense of fear, desperation, and disaster from Gravity, mix it with the “man against nature” attitude, triumph of the human spirit, and sense of isolation from Cast Away, and then fill the rest with that wonderful sequence in Apollo 13 where NASA has to design a cobbled-together carbon dioxide filter for the crew to build out of spare parts and you’ve got The Martian. Except The Martian is more straight-up fun than any of those other films, and a lot funnier to boot.
The film rests squarely on the shoulders of Matt Damon as Mark Watney, who is more than up to the task. Watney spends much of the film narrating his experience into one of the many cameras in the habitat (GoPro must have spent a fortune on product placement, because their cameras are everywhere), as a record for future explorers if he doesn’t survive. These frank confessionals give the audience both a step-by-step explanation of the challenges Watney is facing and his unorthodox solutions to them, but also a look into his mind and attitude. Damon makes Watney a positive, hopeful, resilient guy with a sense of humor to match his clever brain. His line from early in the story, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” is more than just a great tagline for the film, it’s a perfect summation of Watney’s character. He almost relishes the opportunity to flex his brain muscles by coming up with a creative fix for the myriad of problems he faces, and like any good scientist or engineer he celebrates his successes with joy and faces his failures with determination to try again.
Damon is hardly alone onscreen, however, and the rest of the film is filled to bursting with talented actors and familiar faces. Watney’s fellow astronauts making the slow journey back to Earth are led by Jessica Chastain as the remorseful commander, and she’s joined by the likes of Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara, all of whom shine and bring character to their roles despite only being small pieces of the ensemble. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, which in any other film would be the “villain” role because of his antagonism to his coworkers, but the reality is that every character in the film is only doing what he or she thinks is best. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings heart to the ground team as the mission director who matches Watney in determination and spirit. The ground crew is filled out by Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong and more people you’ll recognize in what is probably the most star-studded film of the year that isn’t about superheroes.
It’s hard to believe that The Martian was directed by the same guy who made Prometheus. That awful, slow, boring, depressing, dark mess of a film couldn’t be more removed from the tight, zippy, clever, funny film now in theaters. I’d basically written off Ridley Scott, director of science fiction classics like Alien, Blade Runner as well as masterpieces Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and others, following Prometheus as a lost cause, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he’s returned to form. Working off a script by Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods fame) based on the book by Andy Weir, Scott gives The Martian the perfect balance of spectacle and humanity. He knows when to let the action or the effects dominate the screen, or how to make discussions of math and science tense and exciting, or when to just get out of the way and let Matt Damon charm his way into our hearts. As a result, The Martian never feels ponderous or bleak, but moves along quickly keeping the audience at the edge of their seats without losing touch with the emotions of the moment.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of The Martian is its pro-NASA message. Better than any commercial, The Martian sells the idea of space exploration not only as something exciting but as something worth doing. (And given the miniscule fraction of the US budget dedicated to NASA, there’s no reason whatsoever for denying them all of the funding they could want.) When combined with the recent announcement of the discovery of evidence for liquid water on Mars (which technically invalidates all of the science in The Martian, but oh well), NASA specifically but engineering and science in general have to be riding a public opinion high. Everyone by now has accepted that the nerds and geeks will someday run the world, but The Martian isn’t the story of a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs. Instead it’s the story of the science and engineering workhorses, the sorts who do the thankless jobs that make great breakthroughs and fascinating discoveries that never turn a profit and don’t look sexy in a corporate presentation. It captures the spirit of the old Apollo missions and shows that it still lives in the hearts and minds of the people still working to push the edges of human discovery and advancement. These are the people who know the risks and take them anyway, because they believe in the mission. And with all of the praise for the film, of which this review is just one of many, my hope for the film is that it brings attention and funding to the sort of people who can science the shit out of things.