A few dozen days (or, as a rotation of the planet is referred to in NASA jargon,
“sols”) into his lonely survival ordeal on Mars, the stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) delivers a kind of mission statement into the video log he’s
recording for posterity. Faced with the challenge of finding or creating enough
food and water to survive the four years until the next mission is scheduled to
reach the red planet, Mark decides, with the beleaguered optimism of a born
survivor, to “science the shit out of this.”
That was pretty much also the strategy of Andy Weir, who wrote the best-selling
sci-fi novel on which The Martian is based. Weir, a software engineer and the
son of a physicist, put in meticulous research to support his speculations about
the viability of, say, indoor agriculture in a Mars habitat (Mark’s eventual, if
temporary, solution to the what-to-eat problem). I couldn’t say to what degree
Ridley Scott’s adaptation, in turn, sciences the shit out of Weir’s source
material. But Scott has, against all odds, broken one of the most fundamental
laws of physics: the tendency of systems toward entropy. Scott’s recent films,
many of them grand-scale spectacles (Prometheus,
Exodus: Gods and Kings) have grown progressively longer, slower, and more
ponderous. Now, suddenly, the director has changed course with a movie that,
while certainly long—The Martian approaches 2½ hours—feels as bouncy and light
as a beach ball.
If that’s not the metaphor you prefer for your sci-fi blockbusters—if you like
them on the more philosophically weighty side—then there are plenty of movies
out there for you already. The Martian is a nerdy process film about outer space
survival, with a boyish indifference to archetypal symbolism (Gravity)
or brooding debates about fate and free will (Interstellar).
Don’t bother asking Damon’s Mark Watney how he feels about being completely
alone on a planet inhospitable to human life, where it’s very likely he’ll
starve to death before help can reach him. He’ll simply throw a spade over his
shoulder, repair a crack in his helmet with duct tape, and head out to shovel
some more good red Mars dirt.
In that dirt—fertilized by the human waste left behind in vacuum-sealed packs by
Mark and his former crewmates—he will grow enough potatoes to buy himself a few
hundred more sols’ worth of food supply. Meanwhile the Hermes, the spaceship on
which Mark was serving as team botanist, is on its way back to earth, its crew
members still unaware that their colleague survived the dust storm that forced
them to cut their mission short.
As many observers have noted, The Martian isn’t Matt Damon’s first go-round as
the sole inhabitant of a hostile alien world: Last year, Christopher Nolan’s
landed the actor in a similar pickle. (Damon has also done his share of plodding
through barren desertscapes here on Earth, in Gus Van Sant’s black-comic parable
Gerry.) It’s easy to see why Damon would be your go-to stuck-on-a-planet actor.
He’s Robinson Crusoe via the Hardy Boys, stalwart without being stolid and
hopeful without being (thank God) chipper. And as written by Buffy the Vampire
Slayer veteran Drew Goddard—whose touch with snappy dialogue is largely
responsible for The Martian’s unexpected buoyancy—Mark Watney is funny, a
quality too seldom exhibited by leading men in space. Mark’s ability to see the
comic absurdity of his predicament even in moments of extreme peril comes to
seem inseparable from his iron will to live, and Damon conveys that connection
without ever straining for pathos. The early scenes have an austere one-man show
element, with Damon interacting only with the video monitor where he records his
log and the harsh Martian environment that constantly threatens to engulf him.
(Many exteriors were filmed in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, a frequent movie
stand-in for the fourth planet from the Sun.
By about halfway through, though, the solar system of The Martian has gotten
pretty crowded. In addition to a following the progress of the Hermes—captained
by Jessica Chastain, with a crew that includes Michael Peña and Kate Mara—the
audience is gradually introduced to a boatload of supporting characters at
NASA’s Houston headquarters: Jeff Daniels as the PR-conscious head of the space
program. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director who presses him to prioritize
Watney’s rescue once they realize the stranded botanist is still alive. Kristen
Wiig as NASA’s snippy director of PR. Donald Glover as an entry-level
astrodynamicist with a left-field idea about how to speed up the rescue mission.
The plan for Watney’s rescue may rely on solid science (even if some of the
last-minute MacGyvering with tarps and duct tape seems a little sketchy). But
dramatically, the final hour of The Martian is pure hokum, albeit of the most
satisfying kind. Watney tinkers with the space junk at his encampment to
engineer a solar-powered roving vehicle, all to the accompaniment of a
left-behind playlist of vintage disco, ABBA, and David Bowie (no, not “Life on
Mars,” but something almost as thematically apropos). Back on Earth, the Chinese
and the Americans agree to collaborate on an unprecedented international mission
to save the stranded astronaut.
Like Brad Bird’s
Martian offers a deeply optimistic vision of the future of space travel—it’s
utopic rather than dystopic. But unlike
Tomorrowland, The Martian neither scolds nor preaches. In a way, it’s Saving
Private Ryan without the World War II setting (or the breathable atmosphere)—a
simple, moving tale of comrades rallying to retrieve Matt Damon. Dariusz
Wolski’s dazzling 3-D cinematography often shows people dwarfed by the immensity
of their surroundings: Watney by the mountains and craters of Mars, the Hermes
crew by the infinite blackness of outer space, even the NASA engineers huddled
together under their enormous, and too often useless, screens. But the animating
humanism of Scott’s film is undeniable. It’s a wry tribute to the qualities that
got our species into space in the first place: our resourcefulness, our
curiosity and our outsized, ridiculous, beautiful brains.