“The Martian” is a movie about hope and survival, both from the perspective of a lone person and that of an entire community, banding together for a common goal, for a common good. It is not too much to say that this is a movie about the better, more positive aspects of humanity. Instead of focusing on our differences and our foibles, it is a story about setting that all aside to achieve something seemingly impossible. There is no “bad guy,” though there is still plenty of drama. Continuing on in the face of impossible odds and unbelievable circumstances, the power of human connections, this is one of the most positive, life affirming movies to come out this year.
It is the near future, and NASA has already completed a couple of manned missions to Mars, and this story starts with the third mission being scrubbed just a couple of weeks in because of unforseen inclement Martian weather. During the evacuation, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is lost and presumed dead, as the crew leaves him behind in order to keep all of them from dying as well. But lo, Mark is not dead, but alive. Injured, but alive. He makes his way back to the habitat they have set up and he starts taking steps to stay alive as long as possible until he find a way off the planet, or until a rescue mission can be mounted back on Earth, which would take four years to complete. In the meantime, Mark is all alone on a desolate planet in which nothing grows. And he wants to live.
So after the quick set up which does not take long, the rest of the movie is devoted solely to getting Mark home safely somehow. Not only are there scenes of him solving one problem after another all by himself, but we get scenes of how NASA trying to put together various plans to save his life, and we also get scenes of the crew that left him behind and what they do to try to save his life once they find out he never died. So the movie is about one person being stranded alone on a planet, but this is not a “Cast Away” situation in which a majority of the movie is one character, as there are actually a lot of characters, all of them played by great actors, ranging from the criminally underrated and underused Chiwetel Ejiofor to the surprisingly versatile Kristen Wiig to the always reliable Jeff Daniels, with plenty of up and coming young actors and character actors in between, so despite this movie being two and a half hours long, it bounces around a lot and keep a pretty high energy most of the time, which helps propel everything forward.
A big appeal of “The Martian” for a lot of people will be the grounded nature of the science, as even though this is indeed a sci-fi movie, the original novel was written by an engineer who loved science and problem solving and found many ways to incorporate this into his story, so much of it is speculative but is also based on theories and projections and where space travel hopes to be down the road, so even though it is not all 100% accurate, it doesn’t have to be because it is more about coming across as real and as such more relatable. And like in the book, this movie manages to make much of this science very accessible to the layman, so someone like me who doesn’t do well with math and has less than a cursory knowledge of physics and chemistry and whatnot can still follow along easily when Watney has to come up with a dangerous rig in order to make water or how he solves the problem of growing food in Martian soil or what kind of maneuvers must be made in space in order to make parts of these missions work at all.
Of course Ridley Scott was going to knock something like this out of the park, because the original story is so compelling and well written that it was a fairly simple adaptation from page to screen, and all Scott had to do is his usual level of technical filmmaking excellence. We know he can do science fiction, we know he can do outer space, his production design is always impeccable, and all of this comes out in full effect here in “The Martian,” a movie which joins the ranks of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Gravity” as being great pieces of space-bound sci fi. It is both grounded and fantastic, believable and unbelievable, and that is a hard combination to pull off.
This is damn well made mainstream entertainment, the kind of movie that NASA and space nuts love because it hopefully gets people interested in the idea of space travel again, of the concept of leaving this planet and exploring others. This is the kind of film that gives people hope, for the future and for ourselves. Imagine if we really could all unite together for a common purpose? What if we put our own well being as a global community first? If we could this do for one person, what could we do for everyone? Like I said, a very humanist, populist tale, wrapped up in the guise of an outlandish sci-fi premise, but with its themes of abandonment and adversity and overcoming hardships no matter how large or small, it resonates on a deeply personal level with everyone. It may be a big movie set on another planet, but it is about as human as it gets.