[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The Martian opens this weekend.]
For a movie that takes place on a barren planet where everything could kill its central protagonist, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a lively, breezy sci-fi trip that rarely lingers on science or pathos. It’s desolation without the harshness of loneliness, and utilizes the complexities of science without getting bogged down in how that science functions. It’s a survival tale where catastrophes come off like inconveniences, but the film can always ride its high stakes thanks to its unique setting and commanding lead performance from Matt Damon, who continues to show he’s one of the best actors working today. The Martian may be light, but it’s a fun ride out of this world.
On Sol 18 (“Sol” = “Martian Day”) of a 31-Sol expedition on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) and his fellow Ares III crewmembers are hit by a storm. During the evacuation, Mark is struck by debris, vanishes into the storm, and is assumed dead by his fellow crewmembers. They leave him behind, but he manages to survive impalement, and makes his way back to the Hab (their base of operations) only to confront a whole host of other problems: no communication with NASA, not enough food to last for more than a few weeks, and the next mission to Mars won’t arrive for four years. Watney must “science the shit” out of his problems while the folks at NASA and the other Ares III crewmembers figure out how to rescue the stranded astronaut.
While Andy Weir’s novel relishes the scientific struggles Mark faces, they’re more of an afterthought for Scott’s film. Scott wants the immediacy of the issue rather than looking at the minutiae of every critical problem Mark encounters. Scott doesn’t want to get hung up on the travails of depressurization; he just wants to slap some duct tape on the leak and keep moving, which is fine since at over two hours the movie is already packed even though it cuts out a large chunk of the problems Mark faces in the book and severely strips down others. The “why” rarely concerns Scott; he wants us side-by-side with Mark, facing the immediacy of the issue.
Scott utilizes his full cast well and expertly paces the sprawling story as we bounce between Mars, Earth, and the Hermes spaceship, which holds the Ares III crew. Drew Goddard’s script follows the arc of Weir’s book, and Scott leans into as much character material as possible to emphasize the humor and humanity of Mark and everyone who’s working to save him. While the scientific aspect is what makes The Martian a unique (and occasionally grating) read, it’s fine that Scott doesn’t seem too concerned with it. What’s troubling is that not much concerns Scott beyond the surface issues. It’s a space ride, and there’s no room for anything other than doing the math (with no need or interest to show his work).
The film’s contentment to coast along the surface can at times make The Martian a frustrating experience since the unique setup could have offered up a richer narrative and powerful themes, but what the film lacks shouldn’t necessarily detract from what Scott is going for, which is an interplanetary adventure. It’s nominally sci-fi, and the science is important in that it’s a means for solving problems, but Scott is clearly more taken with Watney’s personality and perseverance rather than his intelligence.
Although you need to buy that your lead actor is smart if he’s playing an astronaut/botanist, and Damon is perfect casting. Damon, who I wholeheartedly believe will win an Oscar for acting at some point in his career, makes Watney a multi-dimensional character even though we know almost nothing about his life on Earth. We know his parents are alive, he cares about his crewmates, and that’s it. There’s no mention of kids or a significant other; he’s a stranded, isolated problem solver who cracks a bunch of jokes, and Damon is talented enough to convince us that this is a real person worth caring about. The film is stacked with tremendous actors who all give strong performances, but The Martian largely rests on Damon’s shoulders, and he makes his difficult task look easy.
That easy, lighthearted tenor carries throughout the film even in its brief bleak moments. There isn’t the crushing loneliness of Cast Away. There isn’t the scientific rush of Apollo 13. The Martian occasionally flirts with the best aspects of these kindred movies, but more than anything it’s about usual heroism in an unusual circumstances. That may be unsatisfying for those looking to see the book’s personality translated to the screen, but Scott confidently follows his own mission, and it makes The Martian one of his best films in years.