Carl Sagan, the renowned astrophysicist, recorded a message dedicated to the future explorers of the planet Mars just months before he died in 1996. A passionate scientist and one who yearned to know more about the solar system and what lies beyond, Sagan eloquently wrote about space in books and for television. In his Mars message, he wonders at the reasons why we might go to the hostile red planet, and posits ideas such as our insatiable, nomadic human spirit. He surmises that we would make the journey because of the “magnificent science that can be done there,” and after watching Ridley Scott’s new sci-fi thriller, The Martian, I am guessing the famed scientist would have felt a great deal of satisfaction with how this story pans out.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist and member of the Ares 3 Mars mission who, after a terrible storm causes the expedition to be scuttled, is left for dead when he is struck by debris as the crew hastily make their way to the launcher. When he awakes, embedded in a dune, he is shaken and wounded, barely shuffling his way back to the artificial habitat. He discovers all the communication equipment damaged, cannot contact NASA, and has only food and water for a short time. He knows that in 4 years, another mission is planned, and therefore, methodically doing the calculations, figures he will either die alone on the planet or find a way to survive until he can be rescued. What follows is a remarkable display of scientific engineering as he uses what is available at the site to grow food and collect water.
While the film offers absolutely nothing in terms of a new story, and like ticking boxes in a requisite checklist for the genre, rolls out every single cliche it can as if desperately meeting a quota, the execution is superb and Damon does a masterful job as the titular character. Smart, clever, witty, and above all, indomitable, he carries the audience along with him as he works his way around the numerous problems that stack up around him, even if they are wholly predictable and arrive precisely on cue. Finding a genius way around narration, Wately talks to himself, or rather at mounted cameras throughout the habitat, offering details about his actions that while certainly unnecessary (think how well Tom Hanks made us understand his efforts without a word while on the island in CastAway), it serves as a fun way to include some humor and get to know the character better.
The weak links in this long chain are those back on Earth, as the people left to decide the fate of the rescue for the stranded astronaut are left to bicker and disagree and stare at screens in wonder or worry as efforts must always be doubled because time is always running out. The excellent Kristen Wiig is reduced to a few moments of closeups where she emotes the appropriate response to whatever is happing on the big monitors in the control room. It’s disappointing. Then we have Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong engineering a communication and escape plan, always being told by Jeff Daniels, the head of NASA, that they have to reduce this and minimize that and so on. There are all sorts of silly guessing games where one character has an idea or revelation after staring at something but refuses to say what it is until the right moment just to extend the mystery and keep audiences guessing. But that is nothing new in movies, and it almost feels like the filmmakers went out of their way to add as many of these tired chestnuts as they could, giving the film a slightly satirical edge.
Then we have the hapless original crew, heading home from Mars after leaving the red planet in escape of the storm. Led by the plucky and admired Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the massive ship is populated by a crew upset about the death of their fellow crew member, but when learn he has survived, decide to break mission orders and make a daring rescue attempt, even though it will add more that a year and half to their journey. Nothing about their decision is surprising, and Chastain’s role is little more than looking guilty and there isn’t anyone watching who doesn’t know what she will do when the time comes.
That’s really this issue with The Martian, a great looking film with lots of fun moments that is holy wedged into a very specific ending. To imagine a fate different from that of what happens to Mark Watney would be to believe a studio would set up a two-hour movie and pull the rug out from everyone at the last second, a gamble none would be willing to take. So watching The Martian isn’t about suspense, it’s about curiosity. How will Watney feed himself? How will he communicate? How will he engineer his way home? Watching Damon is really the best part of this film as he captures a lot of what many are expecting from the now beloved character made popular in Andy Weir‘s acclaimed book. While he is extremely funny as he fights off loneliness and accomplishes staggering results from his experiments, he also finds the right tone and delivers some very surprising moments of pain and sorrow, relief and acceptance. There are two such moments that give Watney the depth he needs and the emotional impact we desire. One where he sits upon a rock and ponders his predicament, and another when he is told the world is with him.
Directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian is a journey we’ve seen a few too many times before but is still a remarkable ride just the same. Lacking the wonder of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) (featuring both Damon and Chastain) and sense of awe of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), The Martian is still a worthy entry in the lost in space (shipwrecked) genre. Boosted by a great cast and some very convincing special effects, the character-driven scenes are the best, with some particularly touching moments of humanity in a tech-heavy movie. We’ve been here before, but it still feels like a welcome place to stay.