Bottom line: A science fiction film with a humanist impulse
A highly enjoyable, zestily acted team-building exercise, with Matt Damon playing the team of one, director Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” throws a series of life-or-death scenarios at its resourceful botanist-astronaut, stranded on Mars but making the most of it. It’s one of the most comforting science fiction films in years.
“I’m not gonna die here,” Damon’s character, Mark Watney, declares early on to the camera. Left for dead by his crew amid a monstrous windstorm, in which he’s thought to be killed by flying debris, Watney must solve a crazy array of challenges, beginning with finding a way to signal his survival to grief-stricken NASA colleagues back home.
His extended solo improvisation exercise finds Watney keeping a video log of sorts. (It’s a movie, so he has to; he can’t write things down and hope we guess what he’s thinking about.) What to eat, for example, once the prepackaged pouches of NASA food run out? The answer: learn to grow potatoes in soil not hospitable to growing potatoes. The making of “The Martian” preceded this week’s news that definitive signs of liquid water have been located on Mars’ surface.
Based on Andy Weir’s diary-form novel, “The Martian” serves as a less fraught (if also less visually arresting) bookend to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” Watching it, you feel you’re getting useful lessons from a hardy life coach in accentuating the positive and not panicking under duress. Or how to fake it, anyway.
Despite some similarities to “Gravity,” Scott’s film is very different in its tone and in its inclusion of “meanwhile, back home” stories, all of which become part of a global effort to retrieve the guy left behind by accident. The time is a few years in the future, at which point the U.S. government has somehow found the money and the interest in a manned Mars space program.
NASA officials (Jeff Daniels plays the head; Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the Mars missions director) are the first to learn Watney is alive. They’re reluctant to inform the surviving Hermes team, making the long trip home to Earth. In “The Martian,” loyalty, plus guilt, counts for everything. The expansive, nicely fleshed-out script by Drew Goddard keeps introducing lively new characters that become crucial to Watney’s fate.
Those who prefer their science fiction more dour, and dire, may resist the film’s fuzzy humanist impulse. I found it refreshing and sincere. Even the tightly wound NASA public relations maven played by Kristen Wiig has something like a human pulse. And that is Damon’s enduring appeal as both a movie star and as an actor. He has a way of making a superhumanly cool-headed cucumber feel like a relatable earthling.