The Martian is one of the greatest science fiction movies of the 21st Century, especially when considering the word “science” in that phrase. The film constantly champions scientific ingenuity, by depicting the far-flung but still very practical puzzles that stand between survival and death for Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the contemporary efforts of earthbound characters to bring him home. Its reverent but relatable use of science may actually inspire fledgling scientists among the audience, while also delivering one of the most breezily entertaining movies of the year. Gifted with this tricky balance, The Martian as written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott is absolutely addictive viewing. Scott has dipped in SF before, of course. But let me just say: Alien. Blade Runner. The Martian. It’s that good, to stand right alongside minted classics of the genre.
It’s about 20 years in the future, and NASA has sent the Ares III crew to Mars via the Hermes spacecraft. The crew includes commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and four other specialists. Operating out of an artificial habitat or “hab”, the crew is gathering soil samples about a third of the way through their scheduled mission time, when a massive storm separates the crew from Watney. Apparently dead, Watney is left on the planet as the Hermes leaves orbit, but of course the abandoned Watney has survived. When he contacts Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and many other key players must figure out the logistics of a potential rescue. All the while, Watney has to make the limited resources left in the habitat keep him alive indefinitely. Because he’s not going to die alone on Mars.
The filmmakers have described The Martian as a love letter to science, but I’d say it’s more of a wet French kiss with science. The joy of the film is watching good-natured, well-humored and smart characters problem-solve, and the momentum of that is rocket-paced. The science has an ideal delivery system as well, as the film’s greatest weapon is probably its sprawling cast that you fall in love with quickly and consistently. Even a few characters who are only few-scene-wonders make a lasting impression. And this is a Ridley Scott film?!? Traditionally, the dramatis personae of Scott’s movies are cold and clinical companies, but not so here, because screenwriter Drew Goddard is in the house!
At the center of everything, Watney is sarcastic, funny, calmly authoritative, and a bit rebellious. Matt Damon is basically firing on all charm cylinders as he’s alone on an entire planet, while also making sure that the appropriate levels of desperation are there as well. Commander Lewis and her crew all feel like rounded and determined people. Bureaucratic NASA director Teddy Sanders is pragmatic but also likable (in Roland Emmerich’s The Martian, he’s the villain). Vincent Kapoor is probably the prime mover of the earthbound action, and you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant character to follow. The list just goes on. Even more minor characters like Donald Glover’s antic whizkid have their turn in the sun. Everyone here is so approachable that it’s almost unrealistic, but I really don’t care to entertain that as a negative thing. The humor and humanity of the script touches everything here. It’s the most likable cast of characters ever wrangled by Ridley Scott (with a deferential nod to Thelma and Louise).
It really comes down to Goddard’s writing. It explicitly laces humor through everything, and that’s of course very apparent. But his greatest trick is the way he balances the danger and “intensity” with giddy resourcefulness. The thing is, in a survival movie like this, you know there will be certain phases of “shit going wrong”, but The Martian is not brooding or often downbeat. I love that while there’s a mutiny in this movie (not a spoiler because it’s in the trailer), that conflict is almost downplayed because at the end of the day every character is working toward the same interests.
Other aspects of the presentation are effective as well. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score really sells Watney’s Martian isolation, but with an added chaser of wonder. The film has got a fantastic retro soundtrack to boot (David Bowie, ABBA, etc) that I think serves this space film better than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s own chart-topping soundtrack (come at me, bros). Dariusz Wolski’s Jordan-based Martian cinematography is beautiful. Arthur Max’ production design of the habitat and the slightly futurist Earth is exquisite. And the Hermes spaceship itself is a thing of beauty.
The Martian is addictive to me. Sitting there in the theater, the pacing of the science-y action and the ingenuity of the characters almost made me want to see Mark Watney stranded on Mars a while longer. It’s an intoxicating blend of danger and unmitigated fun, thanks to Drew Goddard’s script. Scott’s visual tableaus are vast and stunning, but above all this cast deserves all my accolades. The Martian is brilliant. (And it’s got the most obscure Lord of the Rings reference I’ve ever seen in a movie.) 10/10.
P.S.: A very mild spoiler… Can I say how much I adore the fact that each member of the cast gets a curtain call? It fits right into the charm offensive that is The Martian. Or, you know, Science: The Movie.