Outer space is a pretty lonely and expansive place. This much we have learned from the sci-fi genre. What Ridley Scott’s The Martian presupposes is that maybe, the combination of the human will, teamwork and a hearty dose of self-deprecating humor are all that’s needed to fill the endless void. Ditching the dour fatalism that comes along with recent “save the universe/world” efforts (looking at you, Interstellar), The Martian is a gorgeous white-knuckle thriller that’s enlivened by an incredibly strong central performance by Matt Damon and an ensemble cast of dreams.
The crew of Ares 3, a science crew tasked with studying Mars up close and personal, must abandon the planet after an intense dust storm threatens to destroy all the work they have done. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the team botanist, is struck by debris during the storm and presumed dead. He’s not, though, and now he’s tasked with taking the supplies that he does have and fashioning a way to communicate with home. Back home, NASA is working tirelessly to find a way to bring Watney back.
The Martian flourishes most when it represents a back-to-basics approach to storytelling. This isn’t the kind of film that falls back on religious predilections or a complex narrative. If anything, this is the most stripped down version of a survival story that blockbuster cinema has seen in quite some time. Ridley Scott rids himself of the heavy (and heady) ideologies and symbolism that conquer most of his films. Atmosphere and tone is what he’s tasked with pulling off in the story, which fluctuates from pockets of comedic levity to moments of armrest-gripping tension and drama. And for the most part, it entirely works.
The story in itself is based upon a novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which I’ve heard is a quick and tense read. There are three stories going one at once at all times during The Martian. We have Mark finding new ways to survive for longer on Mars, NASA working on speeding up a rescue mission and the Ares 3 crew dealing with the news that Mark is alive. All three parts serve the same focal point, which is Mark’s rescue. The lightest of media politics play out back home in the form of “What should the public know?” and “Should we risk rushing a rescue project with the purpose of saving only one life?” Luckily, Scott and writer Drew Goddard know better than to make an enemy out of the person against risking multiple lives for the sake of one man. The news of Watney’s survival and rescue crosses cultural borders and becomes a global event with the Chinese ultimately giving their technology to NASA so that they can succeed in the mission. The plot is always one step away from playing Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together” in an uplifting montage, but it only divulges into sappy kitsch a couple of times.
Of course, the cast is filled with people at the top of their game, even if their characters are a bit wasted. This is a crowded movie, after all. Jeff Daniels gets to flex the moral turpitude of his character on The Newsroom without being so overbearing as Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA. Kristen Wiig dips into more serious fare, but not without her comedic expressions as Annie Montrose, the media director of NASA. Even the Ares 3 crew, comprised of Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, all get their moments to shine. The standout here is still Matt Damon, though. He gives the story an incredible gravity that balances comedy and drama so well. The boyish charm from films like Good Will Hunting and Ocean’s Eleven resurfaces again for a simple story about a man up against insurmountable odds.
The Martian gets shaky a little bit as it balances a bunch of scientists talking about how to get Mark home vs. showing how Mark is to get home. Some people may decry that there isn’t enough visual flair among a bunch of backroom conversations filled with scientific jargon and all serving the narrative. To me though, I can recall multiple sequences off of the top of my head that are so masterfully crafted, eye-popping and intense that I can’t imagine anyone not being satiated. Scott isn’t trying to anything new visually, but he has a certain kind of polish that will remind you why he’s a craftsman like no other.
A survival story wrapped up in a $100 million blockbuster with comedic relief, dramatic tension, great performances and montages scored to David Bowie and Abba. The Martian, like Mad Max: Fury Road, reminds us why going bigger is not always better. See this as soon as you can.