The appeal of The Martian is red-dirt simple: strand Matt Damon on a planet, and watch him try to stay alive. That’s exactly what you get out of Ridley Scott’s faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular 2011 novel, a sci-fi survival story that you could hear screaming for a film adaptation, even in space. As the third straight Autumn-space blockbuster to land in as many years (and the second to feature Damon), The Martian lacks the technical ambition of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, or the aspirational transcendence of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. But it does have the necessary component parts to make The Martian the most fun of such rollercoasters to the stars, with the stars.
See, when I say that the premise is Matt Damon is marooned on Mars, I mean Matt Damon is marooned on Mars. Technically, he’s playing Mark Watney, the botanist in a multinational crew that’s the first to touch down on the 4th rock from the sun. Turns out, a 140 million mile journey was the easy part: only halfway through their month-long stay, the crew is forced to evacuate the planet…without Watney. Given the available resources at Watney’s disposal, the odds of his survival until a rescue mission arrives are slim. His solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem? “Science the *&^$ out of this.”
Lines like that are simultaneously what made Weir’s book such an easy page-turner, and a better movie script than a novel. The Martian is obsessively detailed about the math, engineering, and physics required for Mark to live day-to-day, let alone make contact with Earth, and get back there in one piece. And while that might sound more like a textbook than a thrilling adventure story, glib writing terraformed the hard science into a series of narrative-driving factoids, an extended “I F*&$ing Love Science!” Tumblr post that ignored the genre’s ability to find commentary beneath mountains of data.
In other words, it’s perfect material for Ridley Scott, a master of slick, adaptive filmmaking who turned the Book of Exodus into a tent-pole release, and loose history into a Best Picture winner. Weir’s greatest strength was being able to maintain The Martian’s sense of desperation, urgency, and excitement over the course of years-long story, much of it spent in isolation. Doing so meant jettisoning anything unrelated to the book’s “here’s the problem we’re solving now” approach to plotting, including character depth or variety. Watney frequently cracking wise about his predicament is one thing, but the NASA engineers and fellow astronauts trying to bring him home all spoke in the same sarcastic monotone. It kept the pace brisk, but made the atmosphere toxically snarky.
The solution doesn’t come from Scott, or screenwriter Drew Goddard, but the simple math of smart casting. The Martian doesn’t just borrow Damon and Jessica Chastain (as the mission’s commanding astronaut) from Interstellar, but also that film’s muddled sound mix during many sequences. It’s easy to miss a lot of the banter that Watney and other characters throw around to lighten the mood, and the calculation-based dialogue eventually gets so dense that it might as well be Star Trek techno babble.
None of that really matters, though. Do you care about Watney as a character after he first realizes he’s been left to die? No, but you care about how Matt Damon is going to pull out a comms antennae that’s lodged three inches deep into his abdomen (in an early, wordless scene that’s one of the film’s best). Really more of an interplanetary heist movie than a sci-fi film, The Martian is powered by the thrill of seeing smart people be awesome at what they do. The NASA employees trying to get Mark home – including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig – all get introduced through text overlays stating their name and occupation, but they might as well just say “super smart person.”
Damon gets an open platform to show off his Hollywood everyman-if-they-went-to-the-gym-more-and-dieted charisma. The situation may be dire, but the gravity of Mark’s predicament is rarely heavy; it’s a consistent pleasure to watch Damon jigger, tinker, and smarm his way out of one scrape, and into another. He also nails the rare moments of the script that treat Watney as a human being with internal psychology, not some charming but alien font of indefatigable proactivity. The rest of the cast gains similar benefit just from being likeable company, including Sean Bean, whose casting may be just for the sake of really driving home an extended Lord of the Rings reference.
Despite the number-crunching manner in which The Martian tackles its life-or-death stakes, the energy and humour propelling it forward make for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. A balletic sequence involving zero-G harnesses is the closest thing to an artistic moment that Scott conjures with his imagery (one that can’t help but recall Gravity), but the production design and direction are all designed to sustain your sense of momentum. Late in the movie, Mark complains about possibly being shot back into space in the equivalent of a Convertible, but that’s exactly what The Martian is: a streamlined, sexy ride that compensates for its emptiness with a shiny exterior and roaring engines.
The Martian might just be an empty spacesuit underneath the science and spectacle, but it’s a very entertaining one.