Silver Screen: The Martian ****
Matt Damon is stranded on the Red Planet in The Martian, a space-themed survivalist tale that merges the zero-G tension of Gravity with the restful alone time of Castaway. Or think of it as Jeremiah Johnson: Beyond the Stars, without any indigenous people to dubiously portray.
Ridley Scott’s film is based on Andy Weir’s bestseller of the same title. The book is science porn, Twilight for the labcoat set. Weir is a scientist more interested in the mechanics of survival on Mars than the classical notions of character and storytelling. He does a decent enough job with those liberal arts concerns, but he fetishes chemistry, botany, and physics.
The result is a fun read but a superior template for a script. Drew Goddard, a sometimes-director himself, drafts a smart adaptation that more seamlessly incorporates the science and streamlines some of the narrative repetition to turn the movie into a brainy thriller. Even better, Weir’s clunky prose is swapped out for Scott’s handsome imagery.
Damon’s Mark Watney is a botanist on an exploratory expedition to Mars with a crew of other specialized scientists. (Their mission, as my friend Tim pointed out, is awfully vague. Were they going all the way to Mars to gather some rocks and go home?) Whatever the original plan, it’s cut short by a violent storm of dust and rock. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders everyone back into the ship. Watney is struck by debris and left for dead. Back home, NASA boss Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) declares him lost.
But with a little luck and some help from his space suit, Watney survives. Now alone on Mars, he must figure out a way to survive in a temporary habitat station with limited rations, potentially for as long as four years until the next manned mission is scheduled. His solution to pretty much every problem: “Science the shit out of it.”
Working with an international team of supernerds back home (including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and Mackenzie Davis) as well as his distant crew (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan), Watney must improvise his way through a series of challenges posed by the harsh Martian atmosphere and the perils of space travel. If you’re old, it’s reminiscent of Apollo 13. If you’re even older, think MacGyver.
It’s a testament to the whole production team that the two hours and twenty minutes of The Martian race by despite the lack of romantic subplots, violence, or much in the way of conventional conflict. The main characters have little direct interaction. But Goddard and Scott create a propulsive survivalist narrative brimming with good humor and emotion.
Damon is largely responsible for keeping the movie buoyant. Weir’s smartest bit of characterization was to make Watney a relentless optimist so the solo scenes don’t get too morose. Even though in space no one can hear your charm, Damon’s Watney keeps himself occupied with muttered wisecracks and a disco soundtrack. He leaves most of the brooding to the men and women of NASA, flummoxing the government’s official spokeswoman (Kristen Wiig) by striking goofball poses in the pictures he sends home and embedding his messages back to earth with dirty jokes.
The Martian is superbly crafted and wonderfully acted. What’s most satisfying, though, is its lack of cynicism. This is a modest effects-driven blockbuster and a mainstream adventure story, but it’s also a deeply humanist tale. The plot is girded by an essential positivity that barriers— be they racial, national, or even interplanetary— can be overcome through the combined force of our best efforts. It’s an ode to cooperation and communication. In a time where the prevailing wisdom says to define ourselves by the labels of our increasingly specific niches, this appeal to collectivism is refreshing, maybe essential.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.