Space exploration, I think it's fair to say, is having an extended moment at the local cineplex, and The Martian might just be its fitting culmination. That's not to say I hope this little run is anywhere near its conclusion. But it is to say that The Martian represents something of an apex, and in a cinematic world where everything that isn't from the DC or Marvel universe seems like an endangered species, it would feel greedy to hope for much more.
About the only thing tongue in cheek or abstract about this film is its title, which does not refer to an alien, but rather to an astronaut, Mark Watney, who winds up stranded on Mars when a violent sandstorm separates him from the rest of his crew as they depart the Red Planet thinking he has perished. Watney is very much alive, though his crewmates -- among them Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan -- are to be forgiven for thinking otherwise. And he is very much up against the odds.
Bleary-eyed and foggy-headed, Watney, played by Matt Damon, scrambles back across the unforgiving landscape to the "Hab" -- not a Montreal Canadien, but rather an oasis of oxygen meant to house he and his crewmates during their abbreviated mission to Mars -- and sets about figuring out how to survive given the meager rations left, his inability to communicate with mission control and the limitations of space and time (a voyage from Earth to Mars take four years in this reality).
Watney is determined to “science the shit” out of his situation — a quip that both garners well-deserved laughs and is a succinct, inelegant summation of exactly what The Martian is all about. Watney is a botanist, which is awfully helpful when he attempts to solve the problem of a dwindling food supply meant to sustain six people for a handful of weeks as opposed to one person for a handful of years. Here is your crash course in growing potatoes on another planet, kids. He is also a freakin’ astronaut, which is awfully helpful when he’s figuring out how to take his roving vehicle on longer journeys or piecing together a method of communication with NASA.
Other than his sense of humor and distaste for disco music, you learn almost nothing about Watney other than what pertains to his survival. The same pretty much goes for his fellow crew members and even for the folks back on Earth — the NASA director played by Jeff Daniels, the head of NASA PR played by Kristen Wiig, the head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory played by Benedict Wong, the scientist played by Donald Glover and the mission directors played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean. There is no traumatized wife or overly optimistic, sage-like young child he has left behind, awkwardly inserted in to the story for human interest. Survival, director Ridley Scott seems to be saying defiantly, is human enough.
The Martian sports a star-studded cast, yet it manages to be singular in focus and almost spartan in its ambition. Watney’s survival is all that matters, and the players involved in guaranteeing it end up being almost incidental. There is no real villain despite the ensemble cast — indeed, there is a hive-mind-like feel to each individual character’s motions. No one moves in lockstep, exactly, but everyone has the same end goal in mind. This has the odd, wonderful effect of making rooting for Watney an unconscious reaction.
We are meant to marvel at his resourcefulness — to cheer at every bit of progress and recoil at every setback. By the time the sandstorm has swirled past, it is involuntary. It is so laser-focused that the pacing of the film becomes a (very minor) problem when the novelty of Watney’s survival skills wanes and the dramatic rescue attempt remains a ways off.
The Martian is not as awe-inducing as Gravity, and by grounding itself more fully in our reality, it winds up feeling less heavyweight than Interstellar (for better and for worse). It possesses an unquestionably broader appeal, though, than either of its immediate predecessors. There ought to be no need to explain to anyone what makes this film so great. This is Scott at his very best — no wonder that this is occurring with him at the helm of a sci-fi film.
I can’t help but mention that the excellence of The Martian filled me with pangs of melancholy. Here is a straightforward, big-boy-pants film. There are no superpowers, and there is just one, highly sardonic mention of Iron Man. Even in outer space, we can’t fully escape Tony Stark, it seems.
It should be like this more often. That it is not has nothing to do with The Martianand everything to do with an industry that is deathly afraid of the financial consequences of the energy and investment involved in trying to introduce new characters to the world. Scott and the wry, assured Damon prove that it is possible — easy even. For once, I’m hoping there are a few imitators finding inspiration in this film.