Think Castaway meets Apollo 13, with special 3D effects from Gravity, and you will have a pretty good idea of what you’ll get if you go to see Ridley Scott’s epic new film The Martian, based on the novel of the same name by Scott Weir. In Drew Goddard’s screenplay, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a 21st-century Robinson Crusoe, assumed dead and inadvertently stranded by his crewmates on a manned mission to Mars when they lose him in a storm. They believe him dead after learning that his pressure suit has been punctured by flying debris and he is losing oxygen.
So what do you do when you’re alone on Mars with enough food for say, a year if you ration it carefully, and you have no way of communicating with your mission control 50 million miles away on Earth, but you know the next manned mission to Mars won’t be coming for another four years, and it’s going to land someplace 3,200 kilometers from where you are now?
For most people, the answer would be to throw up your hands, and either eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die, or end it quickly by stepping out onto the Martian landscape without the protection of a pressurized suit, to burst apart in the hostile climate, or alternatively curl up into a self-pitying ball and despair until you succumb to hunger or thirst, and perish not with a bang but a whimper.
But not Mark Watney. After groping his way into the small enclosed sleeping quarters he and his crewmates had established, he pulls from his abdomen the communications antenna that pierced him in the storm and nearly killed him, then staples his wound shut and records a message on a computer to the effect that he has been left by his crew and can see no other fate but death by starvation or dehydration. Watney spends a day in shock and gloom, but he picks himself up and gets to work. Watney, it turns out, is a can-do kind of guy, an optimist who seems convinced there isn’t a problem he can’t solve. So things seem impossible? Well, as he says, he’s just going to have to “science the s__t out of it.”
Crusoe-style, Watney (a trained botanist) sets out to use his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to survive. He creates an indoor farm with Martian soil and fertilizer created from, yes, his own waste, and plants potatoes, using a small stash of spuds intended for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner to create a crop, manufacturing water by burning rocket fuel. Meanwhile, a NASA engineer (played by Mackenzie Davis) notices that things have been moved on the Martian surface, and realizes that Watney must still be alive. Thus begins a scramble at NASA to figure out how Watney might be rescued.
NASA in this film is peopled by a host of A-list actors taking minor roles in Scott’s epic: Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, trying to protect NASA’s reputation and standing while, secondarily, trying to save Watney. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is Vincent Kapoor, the director of the Mars missions, and has different ideas about rescuing Watney by adding another earlier mission. Kristen Wiig is the PR director at NASA, who gives advice that the director ignores and doesn’t have much else to do except look worried a lot. Then there’s Sean Bean, who plays Mitch Henderson, the crew director, whose only actual concern is with saving Watney. Benedict Wong (whom Scott had used in his 2012 Prometheus) is noteworthy as director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, which must work double-time to try to get some kind of rescue mounted.
As for Watney’s crew, on their way home from Mars on a journey that will take months, Sanders makes the decision not to inform them that Watney is alive, thinking the situation will distract them from their mission home. Jessica Chastain is Melissa Lewis, commander of Watney’s Mars mission, feels some regret over the loss of Watney, and when she and her crew, played by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, finally learn of Watney’s survival, they feel a huge responsibility. But no spoilers here.
The point is that all of these actors, in supporting roles, are there holding up the earth-end of the movie, but from beginning to end it is Damon’s film. The movie succeeds only if Damon succeeds in putting his part over. Furthermore, unlike Apollo 13, which makes NASA the real star of the film and shows the ingenuity of the team at NASA in finding creative solutions to a nearly impossible situation, The Martian shows the infighting at NASA nearly scuttling the rescue effort, and it’s really Watney himself who is chiefly responsible for his own salvation. And it’s really Damon’s performance that makes this movie worth seeing. His Watney has enormous charm and a sense of humor that comes out in the video log he keeps, which is also, of course, the movie’s way of letting us into his thoughts and plans even though he is the only person on the planet—the log is for Watney what Wilson the soccer-ball is for Tom Hanks in Castaway. Watney solves one problem after another, ultimately finding a way to communicate with NASA and help in his own rescue effort. And though setbacks occur, he bounces back from despair each time and maintains his positive attitude.
This unflappable nature might be seen as a flaw in the film, in Watney’s character or Damon’s performance. But Watney does show weakness after each setback. He’s simply able to bounce back. He worries about his parents, and tells Lewis to carry a message to them if he doesn’t survive. He breaks down completely at the point of his rescue. His survival depends on his positive attitude and on his science, and if he does not focus on these things he will not live.
Another weakness that some might see in the film is its very nuts and bolts approach to space travel. This is not Star Wars—it’s no romanticized space opera. Nor is it 2001: A Space Odyssey, filled with mystical wonder. Space travel is a problem to solve in this film, as it was in Apollo 13, as it was to some extent in Gravity. It’s a “realistic” space movie, set in the near future, based on the assumption that human beings could solve the problem of getting to Mars and, if necessary, might solve the problem of surviving on Mars.
More than anything it is a movie about the human spirit, about human ingenuity, about the horizons of science, at a time when there may be a lack of faith in human achievement. If Matt Damon can survive on a world completely hostile to human habitation through the effective use of science, ingenuity, and a positive attitude, is it not possible that our own world, threatened by environmental damage and human industry run amok, can become a place where all of us humans, marooned here by necessity, can find ways to survive, if we just have some faith in science and our own ingenuity?
Mars looks appropriately red and barren in the film, the cinematography of which is sometimes beautiful, but like most 3D movies, there isn’t much point in your seeing it in 3D. But I’d definitely recommend seeing the movie—in 2D if you can. Damon’s performance is worth watching, the ingenuity of the problem-solving is entertaining, and the last twenty minutes or so will have you on the edge of your seat. I’m giving this one three Tennysons.