Mild plot spoilers ahead.
As a fan of both science fiction and science fact, I’ve been really appreciating the spate of new films that take place in space that don’t have to do with alien menaces or laser battles. I love those, too, but we need more celebrations of what we could actually accomplish in the near future as well as what might happen or probably would never happen. Sitting down for Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, all I could do was hold my breath and hope it would deliver on its potential; the ear-to-ear grin I had as the end credits rolled meant my hope wasn’t lost.
Scott has made, in many people’s opinion including my own, two of the very best science fiction films ever with 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner, both very dark and very much based on a reality we don’t have. It wasn’t until 2012’s Prometheus that we had a third chance to see the workhorse director’s third trip into the genre, and it was highly disappointing. With The Martian, Scott’s finally delivered the third great sci-fi movie in his career, and one that has the full support of NASA and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The terrific script was written by Drew Goddard and follows a crew of astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars. Early on, a wind storm hits, and the commander (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to abort, calling everyone back to the return craft. While running to the ship, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and pulled into the desert. The crew thinks him dead and everyone else leaves. Except, of course, he isn’t dead, but will be soon thanks to only having enough rations for a handful of days and certainly not the four years until the next planned mission. Watney has no one to talk to, but makes copious video logs of his travails and eventually decides he needs to try to grow crops on the barren, freezing planet.
Back on Earth, the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) and the head of the Mars missions (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are discussing their possibilities for future missions when it becomes clear that Watney is still alive. Who do they tell? When do they tell? How is it even possible to get him home? These are discussions had by the film’s excellent supporting cast representing mission control, JPL, NASA public relations,and the Chinese space program, all while Watney attempts to survive by “sciencing the shit out of” things.
This is a movie all about using your brain, about trying to do the impossible using skill, logic, perseverance, and hope. It’s become hard to find a movie like this, that is not short on adventure, drama, loss, loneliness or pathos and successfully engages with the potentially trite concept of “The Human Spirit.” There was a time when traveling into space – conquering it – was high on everybody’s list of important things. That’s sadly gone away in a lot of ways, but this movie supposes that the desire to travel and explore and go where no one has gone before hasn’t really left, and it’ll take people far smarter than I to make it happen.
The Martian also looks gorgeous. The Mars surface was shot in the red Jordanian desert and it truly looks alien and sparse but undoubtedly nods to John Ford’s westerns about pioneering and expansion. Damon gives a wonderful performance as Watney, who spends the bulk of the film totally alone, speaking only to camera. The sense of humor of the character, his ability to do what he can and not panic and give up, really shines through. The supporting cast, who are truly too numerous to mention, are excellent as well, and the movie earns the curtain call-style end credits.
You can make the argument that everybody’s a little too funny, that maybe people in this circumstance wouldn’t quip as much as these characters do, but it’s this infusion of humor that really makes the movie work and makes the more dramatic moments resonate more. The Martian manages to channel old ’70s disaster movies with enormous casts, except all the characters here are incredibly intelligent and not arm-flailing buffoons. Is the science 100% accurate? How would I know? It seemed pretty accurate to me. I kept waiting for the one thing to be like “Okay, that probably couldn’t happen,” but it never came.
The Martian is the kind of sci-fi movie I’ve been wanting for a long time–one where science takes center stage and the wondrous, awe-inspiring things that happen all stem from people solving problems using their brains, working collaboratively, becoming a team even if they don’t care for each other or think they can do it. I seriously adored this movie, and I believe you will too.