The Martian abandons the implausible heroics of space opera in favor of basic problem-solving. This sort of science fiction, which focuses on determined engineers and scientists, has its foundation in pulpy magazines and would continue in the work of Isaac Asimov, as well as films like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Scott also directs The Martian, so this film serves as a sort of homecoming: there are the trademarks of his work, including polished photography and detailed production design, but Drew Goddard enhances Scott’s gifts with an intelligent, funny script. But the best thing about The Martian, the thing that makes it have more in common with Fury Road than Interstellar, is how it ties competence to character development.
The Martian is based on the eponymous novel by Andy Weir, whose success is an anomaly in the publishing world: he first published the story as a serial on his website, only to self-publish on Amazon’s Kindle Store and eventually end up on the New York Times’ best-seller list. This initial approach gives The Martian an episodic quality, which helps Scott and Goddard shrewdly define the characters and how they relate to each other.
Their hero is Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist who is part of NASA’s Ares 3 mission to Mars. The Ares crew abandons Mark on the planet during a freak storm – they presume he’s dead because debris cuts off the power to his heart meter – but he awakens shortly afterward and shrewdly takes stock of his situation. While Mark uses limited resources to stay alive on Mars’ surface, the higher-ups at NASA (Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) slowly realize that Mark is alive, and take steps to rescue him. Between these two storylines, Goddard eventually circles back to the Ares crew, who are on the long journey back to Earth and nonetheless become invaluable to the rescue effort.
Matt Damon deserves a lot of credit for The Martian’s success: terrible recent comments notwithstanding, he is an immensely likable actor who has no trouble juxtaposing emotional beats with lighter ones. Still, what helps us connect with Mark is Scott and Goddard’s restraint. Consider what happens when Mark wakes up after his crew abandons him: he wordlessly takes stock of the accident, solves one minor crisis after another, and only allows himself one four-letter word of frustration. Some critics of The Martian complain there is too little character development, yet scenes like this find it wordlessly: Mark is methodical and realistic, the sort of level-headed guy who would invaluable to any team. Since I’m the sort who starts shouting f-bombs the second I cannot get my Wi-Fi working, Mark’s remarkable steadiness is a form insight. It is also a welcome break from films like Gravity, which are disorienting through screams and chaotic accident sequences.
In contrast to Mark talking to himself and harvesting produce through human excrement, the NASA/Ares plotlines are more like a science fiction procedural. Daniels’ character is the head of NASA, the sort of risk-averse bureaucrat who has no luxury for hope, while Ejiofor’s is more eager and hopeful (Sean Bean is another foil for Daniels, and he’s mostly there for a funny, albeit cringe-worthy Lord of the Rings gag). All their dialogue is full of exposition, including plausible details about Mark’s chances and the rescue effort, yet Goddard includes enough shorthand and elliptical language to give the impression we’re solving the problem for ourselves. The Earth-bound supporting cast includes some comic actors, such as Kristen Wiig as NASA’s PR head and Donald Glover as a brilliant physicist, and their personas add dimension to situations and dialogue that would otherwise be a little dry.
Scott is a director who succeeds and fails based on the quality of the script he’s given, and here he has ample material. There is verisimilitude by reverse-engineering the approach to production design: instead of considering what would look most cinematic, he and production team consider what Mark’s new home would actually look like, and build from there. That is not to say that Scott has no sense of awe: his vision of Mars is beautiful, with stark plateaus and valleys, and the space-bound climax mixes striking visuals with a sense of urgency. The Martian recalls everything from the aforementioned Alien to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 13, all of which contain one fundamental idea: the attraction to the void of space is exactly what make it so dangerous.
The astronauts and scientists aboard Ares 3 serve as avatars for all of humanity, so the inexorability of their decision-making is where The Martian ultimately finds its heart. On their high-tech spaceship, the captain (Jessica Chastain) and the crew to the same realization that informs Saving Private Ryan, another movie about Matt’s Damon’s rescue: the mission is the man. Through footage of NASA headquarters and an eager public, we get the cumulative feeling the entire world is watching Mark’s ultimate fate. It’s an effective, albeit easy trick, yet Scott’s seamless editing and Goddard’s sharp script ensure it’s never saccharine or predictable. Like other big-budget space entertainment, The Martian is chock full of pop songs that enhance the overall mood. The juxtaposition of David Bowie and a spacewalk has been a cliché ever since BBC’s Apollo 11 footage, and yet The Martian is terrific enough to earn it.