The Martian is not the film you first expect. It’s a space thriller. It has tense moments assuredly, but it also has an astute sense of humor that pulses through the film as its lifeblood. It makes Ridley Scott’s latest endeavor, based on the novel by Andy Weir, all the more palatable because it lends a fresh face to space exploration.
I’m not sure if I quite buy Matt Damon as a scientifically savvy astronaut and world-class botanist, but he makes it go down easy with a mix of resourcefulness and charm. Despite the casting of Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, it soon becomes obvious that this is no Interstellar and that’s a good thing. Both films fly high on their own merit and both work due to their unique human component.
Our narrative opens on the metallic surface of mars where the crew of Ares III is going through their normal daily regimen as part of their expedition for NASA. As with any film of this nature, there must be a malfunction and a subsequent wrench in the plans. Initially, everything is secure enough, but a wind storm hits with a vengeance. In an instant team member Mark Watney (Damon) is pummeled by debris that sends him flying. His mission commander Lewis (Chastain) makes a last-ditch effort to search for him, but she must reluctantly call for an evacuation of her crew. They somberly begin their journey back to earth as NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) prepares to feed the news to the press.
Little do they know what is going on back on the red planet. Watney is alive and resolves to stay that way by taking stock of his resources, maintaining a video log, and beginning the arduous process of growing potatoes on Mars. It’s all part of a bigger picture, though, because he knows Ares will be returning on another mission. His time increments are denoted as Sols and he knows he has to stretch out his resources for well over 500 Sols if he’s ever to get back home. It’s going to be close.
Once they get over the initial shock, NASA’s mission control, led by Sanders and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), look to do all they can to get to Watney in time. There are tough decisions ahead of them as they figure out when to notify Watney’s colleagues about his status, while also building up communication with the isolated astronaut so they can devise the best plan to reach him. All cylinders are powered up with the best and the brightest in NASA attempting to devise the most efficient solution, but everything comes down to some crucial tactical moves.
Watney on his part, maintains his good humor, grows sick of the ship’s vast catalog of disco tunes, and continues to cultivate his food stock, while also doing some creative problem-solving in order to prepare to rendezvous with the next mission. But time in this scenario is an evil bedfellow, and following the destruction of Watney’s cash crop and the annihilation of a NASA rocket carrying provisions, it looks like dire straits ahead. That’s when it comes down to a brainiac of an astrodynamicist (Donald Glover) and the crew of the Aries led by Commander Lewis to salvage the rescue operation.
By now it seems almost second nature for Ridley Scott to direct films in space and once again he looks perfectly at home in the vast expanses of the Milky Way. The trick, like any respected director, he brings the story down to earth. Back to the people who make up the story. And truthfully, the casting is ceaselessly interesting and Matt Damon might just be the most unsurprising pick of all. But going down the line we have the likes of Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover. They each hold varying degrees of importance at different junctures in the narrative, but each one of them comes from a comic background. Thus, it becomes an interesting change in environment, because we get to see them function in a different type of capacity altogether. Otherwise, the film has a fun disco-filled, David Bowie-accented, ABBA-infused soundtrack that feels perfectly at odds with outer space.
The Martian goes out with a wonderfully fitting denouement giving a nod to all its cast members, continuing the ongoing exploration of space, and leaving us with some quintessential O’Jays. Who would have thought a film such as this would have ended with “Love Train” and “I Will Survive” back to back? It’s pretty fantastic. Mars is cool too.