“I’m not gonna die here.”
The Martian is the ultimate crowd-pleaser of a movie. It’s an adventure unafraid to declare that being smart is cool, and that having a sense of humor is essential. Of the many films I have seen so far this year, this is the one that I can’t imagine anyone disliking. Movies set in space are either zany comedies or harrowing dramas. But here, with a character facing insurmountable odds, the story always manages realistic levity, probably because of its resolute sense of optimism in the midst of dire circumstances. Really though, The Martian’s greatest quality is its ability to make us care. To care about humanity and the great, wondrous acts we are capable of. We can do fantastic things through a collective effort, and this movie is an example of that. You won’t find a much better time at the movies this year.
For a 2 hour and 20 minute long film, The Martian has little to no setup. That’s not a bad thing though because what we get is well-executed, despite it essentially coming out of nowhere. The Ares III team members are already more than a week into their mission on Mars. Collecting samples, running tests. Their voyage comes to a screeching halt as an uglier than anticipated storm rolls in, forcing Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to call it off completely. She must also decide to depart without Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on board, hit by a detached satellite and sent spinning through the clouds of rock, his vitals registering flat. He’s presumed dead. We know that’s not true now, don’t we?
Mark wakes up to what would be the worst alarm clock in the history of mankind. Stranded on the red planet, oxygen level critical, a medal rod piercing his side. And we think getting out of bed for work on Mondays is bad. He has no contact with NASA. Barely enough food to survive. Not enough water. And he estimates he’ll have to somehow make it another 4 years before a rescue mission would even be feasible. Good thing he’s the world’s best damn botanist, piecing together a plan to plant crops in an atmosphere devoid of life. Mark’s attitude is simple: even when you’re against the ropes and the outcome unfavorable, you put your head down, think for a second, and just do the work. There is an uncertainty to his undertaking. And still, he marches forth, because that’s all he can do.
The Martian has one of the bigger ensembles of the year, and every so often it forgets what to do with them all. We see the rescue effort put together back home, led by NASA’s president (Jeff Daniels) and a top engineer (Chiwetel Ejiofor). We see the Ares III crew aboard their outfit the Hermes, making their journey home and unaware of Mark’s survival. We spend time in China, at NASA, in board rooms, at launch sites. The Martian isn’t just all over the map; it’s completely off of it. Normally that doesn’t work. Films with too many locations and too many characters tend to distract rather than attract, and the story suffers a loss with each turn. But our anchor is Mark, and the choice of Matt Damon is perfect casting. I honestly can’t picture another actor playing the role, which is a sign that we don’t see him playing a character but rather being the character. Mark is endearing, a man committed to science and a man with a large personality. It could have played as an inflated ego, yet with Damon, one of the better and most likable actors in Hollywood, it just feels fun. You can’t help but like him.
Adapted from Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, Drew Goddard’s script keeps the cocky gung-ho attitude of the character and places him into a larger world with a broader context. Weir’s novel, while incredibly well-written, is a labor and one with so much scientific detail and minutiae that it can be hard to get through. Goddard’s wisecracking script keeps it light amidst the enormity of the events at hand. Things happen and we accept them without explanation. Who are we to prove otherwise? Ridley Scott directs here, and the result feels less like a Scott film than an early channeling of Robert Zemeckis. We know he has a sure hand for action sequences and a place atop the science fiction totem pole. The Martian differentiates itself from the rest of his filmography because it is so damn personal with Mark, a character whose background we only get subtle hints at, and still he is well-rounded. The direction is assured, the writing confident, and the acting lived in. The Martian fires on all cylinders.
As I said, this is a surprisingly funny feature. Which is why I was shocked when it moved me to genuine tears. Mark doesn’t have to suffer a breakdown or sulk in desperation to stir an emotional response. What hit me, and I’m sure will do the same to you, is the film’s complete and rightful skepticism with the myth of solidarity. He says while walking the deserts of Mars, “4.5 billion years and nobody here. And then me.” That isolation never discourages Mark because he knows that it shouldn’t, that it can’t. We always carry along valuable people, places, things. We’re as much them as they are us. So while you sit back and marvel at his ingenuity and his contagious positivity, and as his rescue attempt becomes a unifying global event, you quickly realize that Mark serves as a symbolic representation of the human spirit. The Martian may not always be right, but it is never fully wrong, and its irrefutable truth adamantly and correctly reminds us that our great worldwide endeavor is a whole lot more meaningful and worthwhile when we do things together.
“I’m gonna have to science the s*** out of this.”
Rating: 4 out of 5