Of all the people to get stranded on Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the lucky one. Smart, resourceful, cunning, and, most importantly, optimistic, Watney can grow potatoes using human feces, manufacture water simply and reconfigure every possible piece of technology available to him. All while maintaining hope in the face of certain catastrophe and sanity in spite of being the only living soul on a planet. Yes, indeed, Mark Watney is one of those rare breeds.
The Martian is a shipwreck story located in the barren wasteland of Mars, set to swinging ’70s disco music and featuring a diverse cast of incredibly smart people doing extraordinarily smart things. The Martian is a sci-fi movie heavy on science but even heavier on the abilities of the human mind to work through any situation presents.
And the science of The Martian seems sound. Or, it is at least presented as such. Thought dead and left on the planet by his crew, Watney must devise a way to create a sustainable food source and contact NASA in hopes of staying alive long enough for a rescue mission to be dispatched. Back in Huston, NASA—headed by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels)—works with the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena—headed by Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong)—to do the right thing and bring their boy home, regardless of cost, which is astronomical, and man-hours necessary, which is all.
Movies operate primarily with a show don’t tell rule, but The Martian has a lot to tell and manages it with grace and humor. With no one else to talk to, Watney records conversational video diaries of his trials, tribulations, and triumphs on Mars. He lines out his problems, explains how he plans to resolve them, and then reports on their successes or failures. When they succeed, he conveys the perfect amount of American swagger and male triumph—he is genuinely proud and surprised with himself—but when they fail, he is humble and honest. In both cases, Watney’s humor is what keeps The Martian buoyant.
And this buoyancy becomes the most fascinating aspects of The Martian and the most fictitious. Much time is spent with Watney and his acceptance of this situation, which ultimately results in a sublime understanding of existence, but little time is spent with Watney grappling with the issues of imminent mortality and crushing loneliness. Instead, Watney plays the archetypal American go-getter who can think his way out of a problem, or as he puts it, “Science the shit out of this.” This attitude extends far beyond Watney. His crew members—who willingly give up an extra two years of their lives to rescue him—all have families who play second fiddle to the mission, which says nothing of the employees of NASA and JPL, who literally work around the clock for 500+ days and spend an enormous amount of time and money to bring Watney home.
But that’s not what The Martian is about by a long shot. Based on the novel by Andy Weir and adapted by Drew Goddard, The Martian celebrates the brilliant minds and resources across the globe that must come together to conquer mankind’s final frontier. What Watney shows, with a great deal of humor, is that the spirit of the adventurer has not withered and died. They have just been waiting in the wings for their time to come. If the geeks don’t inherit the Earth, they certainly will inherit the future.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Drew Goddard based on the novel by Andy Weir
Produced by: Mark Huffam, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong
20th Century Fox, Rated PG-13, Running time 141 minutes, Opens October 2, 2015