BRIEF SYNOPSIS: When astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars, he must find a way to survive until another manned mission will be able to rescue him.
PROS: Good performances from a strong cast; good use of suspense mixed with humor.
CONS: Focus never widens to include more information about the near-future earth; release date makes elements of the movie too familiar.
It’s all about the math, really. When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finally returns to a pressurized habitat after a sandstorm separates him from the crew of a manned mission to Mars, forcing them to return to earth and leave him for dead, he calculates his chances for survival. He faces a grim situation: the next mission launches two years in the future (at least) and his stores include enough food for a month, with water gone even sooner. In the same amount of time it would take many of us to panic, he considers his situation, then begins laying out his plan based on the information and resources at hand.
Genre fans know this situation well; so accustomed are we to understanding the kinds of stakes raised in space travel that we occasionally forget that the most banal occurrences might make for the greatest potential drama. That’s one reason Ridley Scott’s The Martian works so well; Watney must defeat the environment that wants to kill him…simply by eating, drinking, and breathing while finding a means of rescue. In a cinematic genre that destroys worlds at 24 frames per second and where digital dinosaurs feast on amusement park attendees, The Martian stands as one of the few science fiction movies in recent memory that generates suspense from actions almost every human being takes for granted. Its pleasure comes from turning the almost impossible task into an equation that must be solved.
This pleasure at times hinders The Martian in a way that neither screenwriter Drew Goddard nor director Ridley Scott can avoid. Working from Andy Weir’s popular thriller, Goddard and Scott follow not just Watney’s levelheaded determination but also NASA engineers Vincent Kapoor’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mindy Park’s (Mackenzie Davis) single-mindedness in looking for a way to bring Watney home, and director Teddy Sanders’s (Jeff Daniel) attempt to balance public relations and economic realities upon learning Watney remains alive. Stress levels rise as ideas are suggested and then dismissed, all in the ways audiences have been accustomed to seeing. It makes the movie at times seem not just routine but quaint. Wouldn’t we have been able to see this on a movie-of-the-week in the 1980s, with Tony Danza in the title role? Wouldn’t we have been able to set our watches by the challenges Watney confronted and the arguments between personnel and management? If it had been, who would have hoped Danza survived?
Yes, The Martian occasionally falls into these predictable pits, but often Scott maneuvers around enough of them by injecting the right balance of humor and uncertainty into this otherworldly robinsonade. Watney notes, as he discovers a way to grow potatoes in the arid Martian soil, that one cannot actually claim to have colonized another planet unless it is seeded with viable crops. “Take that, Neil Armstrong,” he quips. Later, he expounds on an item of maritime law that, technically, allows him to call himself a space pirate when outside of his habitat. A moment that exposes the source material’s author as a big geek—NASA hatches a secret plan to rescue Watney, calling it Project Elrond—brings the biggest laugh made even better when one remembers that meeting attendee Sean Bean appeared as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. Occasionally it backfires, however; Watney plays commander Melissa Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) cache of disco music for entertainment, thus causing the movie to veer dangerously close to seeming like an outtake of Guardians of the Galaxy.
It helps, too, that Scott brings together a strong team of actors to bring The Martian to life. Chastain leads the crew of the Martian mission that includes Kata Mara and Michael Peña, talented actors who bring just enough charm to their roles that they don’t have to do much else. As Watney, Damon commands the most focus, so brings his considerable charm to a role, allowing the audience to identify with him and thus give it a stake in his tale.
Ridley Scott avoids allowing The Martian’s scope to widen beyond the confines of its breezy tale, a holdover from the novel that served as its biggest failing. Watney’s predicament, while seemingly insurmountable, never extends beyond the mere requirements of the physical. The Martian asks no big questions and offers no philosophical insights, and never provides a glimpse of the world outside of its narrow narrative. Perhaps this is wise; Prometheus, Scott’s previous science fiction movie, reeked of pretension and navel-gazing. The Martian may only ask questions that have a concrete answer, but it isn’t afraid to show its work, and invites audiences to share its delight.