Mark Watney has a problem. He’s stranded on Mars. During the first manned mission to the red planet, a massive dust storm separates the botanist from his crew, who are forced to declare him dead and blast off back to the safety of their shuttle without him. But he’s not dead. Mark has miraculously survived, and now he has to figure out how to re-establish communication with NASA and stretch a month’s worth of rations to last him to the time the next mission gets to Mars — in four years.
Mark’s ingenious attempts to survive and NASA’s attempts to save him from the ground make up the compelling story at the crux of The Martian, Ridley Scott’s fantastic, breathtaking adaptation of Andrew Weir’s acclaimed novel. It’s Robinson Crusoe for the 21st Century, with Watney a lone figure relying on his wits to survive a harsh, unlivable landscape — his hope refusing to dwindle against seemingly insurmountable odds and certain death. It’s also one of the best films of the year and one of the best in the long, storied, uneven career of its legendary director, Ridley Scott.
What makes The Martian so special is the fact that it’s a big scale epic that prizes, smaller intimate moments. It has all the prestige and resources of a huge film, but spectacle isn’t the on the agenda here — though Scott doesn’t skimp on thrills by any means. This is a film about being human. About all the greatness humanity can accomplish, if we all can come together in a spirit of togetherness. It’s a celebration of intelligence and compassion and cooperation and staring hopelessness in the face and deciding you can go on. The Martian is, potentially, the kind of film that could legitimately change lives. It is genuinely, truly inspirational.
The movie is all about Watney’s attempts to survive, alone, without resources, on the surface of Mars. How he goes about the business of creating water, so he can create a garden, and about he uses his ingenuity to solve one problem and one setback after another. Down on the ground, the eggheads at NASA similarly work feverishly to bring Mark home, while also dealing with the public relations fallout — one false step, and the future of NASA is endangered. The cast is ridiculously stacked with great actors and not one makes a false step. As Watney, Matt Damon owns the movie. He is the main character we see most of the time and the one who carries the movie, and we have to buy both Watney’s acute intelligence and quicksilver shifts from crushing defeat back to hopeful resilience. Damon’s everyman charisma, watchful eyes and wry good-humor help to paint a complete picture of a man struggling to survive a catastrophe with not only his life, but his soul intact.
Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig…they are all among the various fellow astronauts, scientists and officials trying to bring mark back home. All are excellent. The script, by Drew Goddard, manages to be both humane and fascinatingly procedural, detailing each step Watney and his colleagues take in helping to prolong his survival. This isn’t a cerebral movie, however — it’s a real thrill to watch Watney pull all his meager resource in a fight against what is against him, and the movie is often really, really entertaining and even funny (especially once Glover comes aboard for a few scenes as an addled, distracted astrophysicist.) It’s also remarkably shot and filled with amazing effects; it really feels like we are on Mars itself and not some Moroccan facsimile. That “you are there” realism thoroughly plunges us deep into this one-man adventure.
It’s safe to say that The Martian may just be in the top five of Ridley Scott’s filmography. One could make an argument for top three. It’s that good. The Martian blows most recent sci-fi, even the likes of Gravity and Interstellar, out of the water, because it avoids simplistic “ride” status or pompous grandiosity, but instead mines deep for soul. It’s a renowned filmmaker working at the absolute top of his skills, alongside a terrific cast and crew and armed with, most importantly, a gripping, exciting, moving story of survival. It is worth the trip.