As a lifelong science-fiction fan, I must admit that the most recent spate of “hard” sci-fi films has been a pleasant respite from overblown space operas and epic superhero confrontations. Films like Gravity and Interstellar have shown that filmmakers can still use real-life scientific concepts to tell compelling stories. The new film The Martian extends that idea into the exploration (and potential colonization) of the Red Planet.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist on the Ares III mission. His mission is to examine Martian soil samples to determine what it would take to get Earth plants grow in the sterile soil. When a sudden storm attacks their rocket, a chunk of debris strikes Watney, knocking him far from shelter and burying him in the red sand. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to save the rest of the crew and leave Watney behind.
The Ares III disaster forces NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and PR flack Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig) to deal with the fallout. When Watney finds a way to communicate with Earth and tell them he’s still alive, the bad situation becomes worse. Can they rescue Watney? Should they try? What should they tell the public? Should they inform the crew that left him behind?
Meanwhile, back on Mars, Watney uses more improvisational engineering techniques than the first season of the classic ’80s TV show MacGyver.
Watney knows that he must wait four years for Earth and Mars to align closely enough for NASA to attempt a rescue mission, so he works some scientific wonders in maintaining both his health and his sanity. He quickly becomes “the greatest botanist on this planet” and even develops an appreciation for ’70s TV and disco music.
Back at NASA, a group of engineers led by Project Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) run through several plans to both resupply and rescue Watney. A wide cast of characters, from an eccentric computer genius (Donald Glover) to the leader of the Chinese space agency (Eddy Ko) all cooperate in the historic rescue effort.
The crew that left Watney behind must decide. Do they go home to their lives and their families? Or do they risk their lives to save their stranded crewmate?
Damon does an admirable job as Watney. He plays the character with an old-fashioned, American, “can-do” attitude, even when everything goes catastrophically wrong. Even in her brief role as the mission commander, Chastain delivers a solid performance as the conflicted Commander Lewis. Ejiofor shows the drive and single-mindedness found in many scientists and engineers when it comes to problem-solving, with the added incentive of a life hanging in the balance.
Director Ridley Scott gets back on the right path after some recent misses (Prometheus, The Counselor, Exodus: Gods and Kings). Drew Goddard’s script hits most of the right notes from Andy Weir’s novel. He doesn’t allow Watney to sink into loneliness and depression. Instead, he writes the character as facing a problem to solve, rather than succumbing to desperation.
Overall, The Martian has many of the best elements of “sole survivor” films such as Gravity and Cast Away. The efforts of the engineers and crews to bring Watney home are as compelling as Watney’s struggle for survival.
The film’s message of perseverance and cooperation shows that “no man is an island”, even if that man is alone on another planet.