You know your movie is good when the biggest complaint I have is utterly petty. That is, The Martian would have been better if its star, Matt Damon, were allowed to retain his hilarious Boston accent. Think of how great it would be to here Damon talking about being stranded on Mahz and that he’s the only Mahshin on the entiyah planet. But I digress.
Yes, The Martian is terrific, one of the best movies of the year, and one of the best of Ridley Scott’s spotty career. It continues the trend started by Gravity, in which we receive one extremely well-made, thoughtful, and emotionally gripping space survival movie per year (2014’s candidate was Interstellar). But like those two films and in spite of their shared setting, The Martian carves out a path of its own, its tone edging just as emotional but far more human in its scope. The goal of the film may be to bring home Damon’s Mark Watney, but it takes a village to do so.
The crowd of people working to save Watney is comprised of some of Hollywood’s best acting talent today, including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover. But despite the rogue’s gallery of talent revolving around Damon, he is very much the star of the film, carrying much of its weight on his shoulders. Damon does so with gusto and humor in a way that is as disarming as it is surprisingly effective. Unlike the existential despair and relative humorlessness of the characters in the aforementioned space flicks, Watney is able to maintain a wry sense of good cheer throughout, even as he faces insurmountable odds. As he says, “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.”
Not only is Watney a botanist but he is also an astronaut, which is why he is on Mars in the first place. He, along with several of the other previously mentioned cast members, are on an excursion to Mars when a severe dust storm injures and separates Watney from the rest of the group, who has no choice but to take off from the dangerous planet without him. Watney has provisions for only a short period of time, and the unpredictable weather on Mars makes for a very uncertain future for him, indeed.
Back on Earth, NASA eventually learns about Watney’s status and decides that it’d be better PR to try to save him (and also, y’know, the right thing to do). The bulk of the film is then spent cutting between Mars and Earth. On the former, Watney uses his skills as a botanist to improvise food and water sources, shelter and communication with mission control. On the latter, NASA scientists (led by Ejiofor) try to come up with ways to reach Watney without forcing the returning astronauts to turn back—and to avoid disabusing them of the notion that Watney is dead, a fallacy that plagues them with guilt.
All of these plates are kept spinning with seeming effortlessness by Scott and the witty, terrific screenplay by Drew Goddard, whose tenure on Buffy, Angel and Lost make him an ideal candidate for juggling a slew of characters at once. Scott’s forte has and always will be science fiction, and The Martian is a thrilling return to form for him after the debacle of Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mars’s desolate plains are rendered seamlessly, saving the real special effects extravaganza for the finale. Scott and Goddard also use a clever technique to get us inside Watney’s head, which is to show us his video journals that he records to keep himself sane throughout his very lonely time on the red planet.
There is also an undercurrent of verisimilitude that keeps the stakes high and our pulses racing for Watney. Even though the odds are overwhelmingly against Watney in his situation, the script convinces us that the man is as smart as an astronaut should be, and that he is fully capable of doing whatever he can to survive. The film also wisely eschews overly psychologizing Watney or giving him any more motivation other than basic survival; there is no hand-wringing spouse back home for Watney to pine over. And as a science nerd, Watney verbally walks us through is thought process for each of the techniques he uses to feed and take care of himself on Mars, all of which at least seems plausible, which is ultimately all that matters.
I won’t get into spoiler territory, but I will let you know that you will leave the theater smiling. In addition to being one of Scott’s best films, it is also one of his most rousing, which is in stark contrast to his nihilistic masterpieces, Alien and Bladerunner. Perhaps in his old age—Scott is 78—he has discovered optimism. I’m glad to see he knows how to use it.