If you’ve seen the trailer for The Martian, then you’ve seen the moment in the film where astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) explains to the camera that, in order to have enough food to survive, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
The line should be on the poster. It encapsulates The Martian perfectly. The film gives Watney a series of space problems to solve, all of which he does in a brash and charming way. It doesn’t shy away from the drama, but Damon’s character stays so upbeat and confident through it all that you always feel like somehow it will all be okay.
If you haven’t seen the trailer, allow me to give you a quick synopsis of the plot. Watney is part of a manned mission to Mars. On their last night on the planet, the crew is put in jeopardy by a severe dust storm. Watney is separated from the rest of the crew and knocked unconscious by the debris. Making matters worse, his suit’s vital readings are also damaged by the storm, leaving the crew to believe he’s dead. The ship’s captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), makes the difficult decision to leave without confirming Watney is dead. It is the only viable option given the inclimate weather, but it’s a decision that weighs heavily on Lewis.
When Watney wakes up the next day, he knows his chances of survival are bleak. It’ll be four years before another manned mission arrives. He has no way of contacting NASA for support and he’ll run out of food long before the next crew can rescue him. He’ll have to use his skills as a botanist and an astronaut to “science the shit” out of all of it.
Back on Earth, satellite photos show NASA that Watney is still alive. NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Media Relations Director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Director of the Mars Mission Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) have to make a series of tough decisions to figure out what acceptable risks can be made to bring back Watney alive. (And, because of NASA’s transparency, they have to do all of this in the public eye.) Sanders also makes the controversial decision to not tell Watney’s crew that he’s still alive, since he worries it could distract them and jeopardize their mission home.
It’s fun to watch Watney and the NASA crew solve the multitude of problems presented to them. And Watney remains unflappable throughout it all, cracking wise to the video diary cameras recording his actions. It all feels fun and mischievous. Watney even refers to himself as a “space pirate” at one point.
Recent films like Interstellar and Gravity have focused more on how bleak and terrifying space can be. The Martian seems completely disinterested in the terror. The months of solitude and setbacks never seem to really effect Watney. He’s just as chipper and quick witted at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, even as he starts looking dangerously thin. (I wasn’t necessarily hoping for a Ren and Stimpy “Space Madness”-esque breakdown, but it did seem a bit disingenuous to completely gloss over the mental toll an experience like this would take on a person.)
While the film mostly remains upbeat and breezy throughout, it does deliver a harrowing finale. (Fear not, Watney still manages to deliver a few zingers during it.) The finale is exciting and scary and is the one part of the film that truly takes advantage of the 3D format.
As you would expect, Damon is great in the lead role. I also really enjoyed Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean (who plays the mission’s flight director) in their supporting roles. It’s definitely Damon’s film, but Scott does a good job giving other characters little moments to shine. Chastain, in particular, has a very compelling story arc as she has to deal with the guilt of leaving Watney behind.
The Martian feels like a Hollywood movie about Mars. It is more interested in the upbeat moments than the terrible ones. It’s a skewed depiction of being isolated on a remote planet, but certainly a feel good one. So if you found Interstellar and Gravity a bit too bleak and just want a big budget movie to “science the shit” out of outer space, The Martian is the film for you.
Written by Joel Murphy. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org