Science is our friend in this surprisingly optimistic inter-planetary dramedy.
What we see on-screen, for the most part, in Ridley Scott‘s The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s popular sci-fi novel) is Matt Damon playing an astronaut, stranded on Mars, who must be resourceful on a resource-less planet in order to return to earth. From that simple premise spawns more entertainment than we’ve seen from Scott in years as we follow the Martian misadventures of Damon’s Mark Watney as he “sciences the shit” out of his dire situation with the (remote) help of his earth-bound astronautic team and the bright minds at NASA.
The movie’s trailers would have you expecting a white-knuckle, isolation-horror story along the lines of Gravity. I was pleasantly surprised, however (as someone who hasn’t read the book), to find a movie that’s optimistic, warm, very funny, and very much un-scary. This is much lighter material than the marketing would have you believe, and that’s a good thing.
The tone is set from the beginning with Mark and his team surveying the martian surface for, uh, science reasons. Mark rattles off smartass quips rapid-fire, and judging from his crew-mates’ joking, amused reactions, it’s clear they’re a tight-knit group. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads the team, who refer to each other on a last-name basis. Martinez (Michael Peña), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Vogel (Aksel Hennie) find outer-space comfort in clowning on their good buddy Watney. Suddenly, a violent rock storm barrels through the work site and a piece of equipment slams into Mark, hurtling him into the darkness. Believing their friend dead, the team leaves the planet surface before the storm tears their ship to pieces.
Despite being left to his own devices, Mark finds a way to keep yapping: returning to the Mars base, he starts keeping a video log for whoever or whatever. It mostly keeps him sane as he MacGuyvers his way through the litany of problems that comes with being stranded on an inhospitable planet. The most pressing issue initially is Mark’s limited food supply; should he eventually find a way to contact earth or his crewmates, his current stock of NASA microwaveable meals wouldn’t keep him alive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. Thankfully, Mark’s a botanist, and he figures out a way to make his own water and grow an indoor garden, which bears enough potatoes to keep him going for the foreseeable future.
Much like in Robinson Crusoe and Robert Zemeckis’ Castaway, it’s a delight to watch our hero use his brainpower and willpower to gradually build a little life for himself in a hopeless place. It also doesn’t hurt that Damon finds his groove with the smart and savvy material, adapted by Drew Goddard from the book. Some of the jokes are pretty corny, but Goddard’s always had a knack for making even the cornball-iest comedy sing. Mark’s bright-side attitude is charming: when he runs out of ketchup for his potatoes, he dips them in crushed-up Adderall and jokes bout it; when it dawns on him that, because he’s grown potatoes on Martian soil, he’s technically colonized the planet, he sticks his chin up in the air like a proud child. The movie’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but Damon’s so entertaining that it’s a swift, streamlined watch.
The story hops back to earth regularly, where a crowded cast of mostly insignificant NASA officials debate how to tell the grieving public that Mark Watney is not deceased, as they originally reported, as well as figure out a way to bring him back home before his food runs out or a random equipment malfunction kills him. Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor have the most prominent roles as the two highest ranking NASA brains, with the rest of the home planet cast filled out by the likes of Donald Glover, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, and Kristen Wiig, who’s in such a nothing role it’s sad. Chastain and the rest of the crew rejoin the story later, after NASA decides how to break the news to them that their friend is still alive.
The visual effects are as spectacular as they need to be, but the movie isn’t enamored with them like too many sci-fi dramas are. Mars looks totally convincing and serene, but the focus is always on what and how Mark’s doing. In essence, Weir’s story is about the wonder and power of science and how the human spirit can unlock its true beauty. None of the action scenes rival anything you’ll see in Interstellar or Gravity, but the that’s not what this movie’s about, after all, which is refreshing. The Martian won’t please those expecting a dark, terrorizing thrill ride where the heroes are in constant peril, but it’ll make the rest of us laugh and cheer, which is something sci-fi blockbusters don’t do enough these days.