In 1979, Ridley Scott taught us that in space no one can hear you scream. More than 35 years after Alien established him as a top directorial talent, Scott has slightly amended that statement to read “in space no one can hear you…blast disco music and binge watch Happy Days.” These lighthearted coping mechanisms — used here to deal with a truly horrifying and hopeless situation — are strong indicators of what you’re in for with The Martian, which is both brainier and much funnier than your average space epic.
“Mark Watney is dead.”
I hate to start this synopsis with a lie, but Watney (Matt Damon) — the presumed dead astronaut who is stranded on Mars after his Ares 3 mission is abruptly cut short by a dust storm — is very much alive. After performing a painful bit of self-surgery, which made me flash back to a certain sequence in Scott’s own Prometheus — Watney regroups and does some practical math. The next manned mission to Mars isn’t due to arrive for another four years, but Watney is holed up in an environment designed to sustain life for about 31 days. Even after cataloguing his departed crew members’ supplies and making plans to stretch them out, Watney still doesn’t have nearly enough materials to keep him alive until help arrives. So what’s a brilliant, resourceful guy to do?
“I’m gonna have to science the s— out of this.”
The fact that Watney uses the word “science” as a verb is no accident. In The Martian — which is based on Andy Weir’s popular 2011 novel — ingenuity and inventiveness are the hero’s prevailing actions. (As opposed to punching or shooting his way out of the problem.) Turns out Watney is a smarty pants botanist who devices a way a generate water and grow potatoes. But he’s not the only one hustling to make a scientific miracle happen.
After satellite photos reveal that Watney is alive, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) pushes his highly-intelligent charges hard — and cuts corners — to come up with ways to keep Mark alive. Eventually, Director of Mars missions Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is able to establish contact with Watney. Meanwhile, the NASA brass on Earth also debates informing the rest of the Ares 3 crew — played by the likes of Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie — that Watney is alive.
To be honest, The Martian is a surprisingly easy sell. It’s “Cast Away on Mars.” The story also allows us to temporarily live in an alternate reality where humans have already set foot on Mars and throngs of people gather in the streets to watch the latest NASA mission. (At best, the most we could hope for in real life is someone taking the time to stream the latest launch on their phone.) Heck, Interstellar fans can even have some fun by pretending that The Martian is simply the same story told from the perspective of Damon’s similarly stranded character.
But whereas Interstellar was equal parts dazzling and ponderous, The Martian is unabashedly…fun. And I’m not just talking about playful song selections (Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, David Bowie’s “Starman”) that nod to Watney’s predicament. Scott displays a deft, surprisingly brisk touch with the material. He bypasses voiceover narration and has Watney do video logs that outline the scientific thinking behind his more innovative decisions. But when the action on Earth threatens to sag in the film’s latter third — as NASA formulates its last, best plan to save Watney — Scott “yada-yadas” some of the science by having characters dismissively blurt, “it checks out.”
There’s also the fact that, instead of a protagonist who falls into a pit of psychological despair, Watney pretty much puts the “smart” in “smart-ass.” That attitude could easily come off as glibness in the hands of a less capable actor than Damon, who radiates intelligence even when he plays a janitor. But Damon has enough gravitas to convey the seriousness of the situation while retaining the charm that made him a movie star. (And it’s no major spoiler to say that things do eventually go very wrong for Watney on Mars.) Even though Damon is definitely capable of holding the screen for long stretches of time, The Martian — which has been adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard — smartly cuts back to Earth every once in a while to keep things from getting stale.
Plus, it would be a shame to waste such an outstanding cast by focusing on just one guy. To be fair, a few outstanding performers — especially powerhouses like Chastain (as the commander of the Ares 3 crew) and Ejiofor — are grossly overqualified for what they’re required to do here, but it’s also enjoyable seeing them take on lighter, less-demanding roles. The other standouts are Daniels (porting over his amusingly glib/blowhard rhythms from The Newsroom) and Pena (continuing his comedic, motormouth winning streak in big budget tentpoles). The Martian also mixes in performers like Kristen Wiig (slightly toning down her manic comic persona to play a NASA flack), Donald Glover (not at all toning down his comic persona to play a quirky astrodynamicist), and Sean Bean (who is mostly here so Lord of the Rings fans can have a nerdgasm when something called “Project Elrond” comes up).
The final act stretches the credulity the rest of the film worked hard to construct. And despite having a master craftsman like Scott at the helm, the film doesn’t really come close to packing the visual (or even emotional) punch of that other recent “marooned in space” drama. Yet despite the lack of oxygen in Watney’s new surroundings, The Martian is a smart, crowd-pleasing breath of fresh air in a genre that often takes itself much too seriously.