Whenever I consider the history of the space race, I'm always amazed by how quickly America managed to achieve the seemingly impossible task of putting a man on the moon. Driven by our Cold War-fueled desires to beat Russia to the punch, our best and brightest minds found ways to turn some of our most outlandish science-fiction dreams into realities. In recent years, our progress in the realm of space exploration has slowed a great deal, and NASA is largely treated as a secondary government organization. There are a number of plausible reasons for this, chief among them the fact that we seem to lack sufficient motivation to move forward at the same awe-inspiring pace. Ridley Scott's The Martian makes the persuasive suggestion that our capacity for scientific innovation is still very much alive – we just need an urgent problem to solve.
In this case, the problem is that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) has been stranded on Mars. Watney was a member of the Ares III crew – the third group of astronauts to set foot on the red planet. There was a storm, and Watney disappeared in the chaos. His commander (Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life) had reason to believe that he had died, and made the difficult decision to head back to earth with the rest of her crew. When Mark wakes up, he discovers the he is injured and alone. The mission's artificial habitat is still intact, but his odds of finding a way out of this predicament are slim. The equipment wasn't designed with long-term survival in mind, and even if he manages to keep everything intact, his food supply is rather limited. By the time NASA launches another manned mission, Watney will have starved to death.
What follows is more than two hours of nerdtastic problem-solving, as Watney and the assorted folks at NASA attempt to to find practical solutions to dilemmas no one has ever faced before. Luckily, Watney just so happens to be the crew's botanist, so he has a better chance than most people at figuring out a way to grow food on a planet where such things ought to be impossible. He keeps a video log of his daily activities, mostly for the sake of leaving an explanation behind if his survival efforts fail. Meanwhile, folks like NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, Steve Jobs) and Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) are saddled with the task of finding a way to communicate with Watney, hastily forming a rescue plan and securing government funding.
There's little doubt about how things are going to turn out in the end, but the film is never less than riveting. The suspense the film generates is not in whether the problems will be solved, but in the specifics of how they are solved. There are no magical cubes or supernatural miracles in this movie, just mostly-plausible scientific ideas. Obviously, no man has set foot on Mars and we haven't yet perfected some of the technology we see in this movie. Even so, the film's admirable insistence on explaining every detail makes it feel like a documentary of the future – a film tonally located somewhere between the real-life drama of Apollo 13 and the beautiful dreams of Contact. Like both of those movies, The Martian is fundamentally a hymn to human ingenuity.
In keeping with the novel the film is based on, The Martian is funnier than movies like this usually are. Watney is a playful smartass, and the fact that his life is in great danger doesn't change that. However, the book largely relied on journal entries penned by Watney, while the film employs video logs (a natural, medium-appropriate change). That small but crucial difference allows for Damon to give us a more complex portrait of Watney, as the flippant sarcasm in his words is often underscored by a look of fear and uncertainty on his face. It's a beautiful piece of work from Damon, as charming and soulful and compelling as anything he's ever done.
Scott's direction is assured and confident – visually spectacular during those sweeping shots of the planet's vast, empty landscape, but also as no-nonsense as anything he's made in recent years. There's a relaxed quality to Scott's direction that suggests he fully trusts in the power of the story he's telling, and doesn't feel a need to employ any fancy gimmickry to sustain our interest. Back on earth, he de-emphasizes the fact that what we're watching is supposed to be taking place decades from now, presenting a version of the future that looks basically identical to the world we currently live in. That's a smart move, because it further hammers home the notion that everything we're seeing is possible. This is a huge movie with grand, moving themes, but Scott never lets his head get stuck in the clouds. In direct contrast to Christopher Nolan's wildly ambitious but often frustrating Interstellar, you never catch Scott straining to emphasize the weight of what we're seeing. The movie feels effortless in the best possible way.
To be sure, there's a reasonable amount of stuff to nitpick. Harry Gregson-Williams' score is a curiously dull affair (often dissolving into generic electronic noodling in certain moments), the film doesn't give us a particularly strong picture of the way the general public is reacting to this whole scenario and certain ethical debates (like, say, whether we should be spending billions of dollars to save a single individual) are resolved too efficiently. Even so, there is not a single moment in The Martian that feels dull or exasperating or needless. This is such an absorbing film, and it achieves its larger goals with such grace that its faults seem insignificant.
The supporting cast is loaded with top-shelf talent, and while certain individuals aren't really given much to do (Kristen Wiig pops up as a PR expert, Donald Glover enlivens a couple of scenes as an eccentric scientist, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie play Damon's fellow crew members), the casting generally feels smart and thoughtful. Sean Bean's quavering voice feels perfectly suited to the morally indignant man he's playing, while Jeff Daniels reminds us that he's as good as anyone at playing pompous (but basically good-hearted) authority figures. Jessica Chastain does a nice job of underplaying her character's unavoidable feelings of guilt – she made the right decision given the information she had to work with, but she can't shake the knowledge that she left a crew member behind.
One of the film's best running gags involves Watney's limited entertainment options: he's stuck with the stuff his fellow crew members left behind, and the only music available is a wide variety of cheesy disco material. Scott continually peppers the soundtrack with upbeat '70s tunes, and the tuneful warmth of selections like “Don't Leave Me This Way” and “Waterloo” ultimately serves as a strong antidote to the (literal and metaphorical) chilliness of the desolated planet. For me, the film's definitive sequence is a montage that arrives late in the proceedings, as Scott underscores a diverse array of images of a widespread rescue effort with David Bowie's marvelous “Starman.” It's a surprisingly moving fusion of images and music; a display of global cooperation that feels both inspirational and aspirational. Movies may not change the world directly, but sometimes they fuel the dreams of people who will.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 2015