Brisk, heartwarming, genial, and celebratory, The Martian is a geeky survival yarn with personality, an exciting gem of a science fiction adventure, and an irresistible affirmation of collaboration. It’s an ode to scientific ingenuity, a humane spectacle with a genuine hero, and a robust cinematic take-off that lands on solid ground.
During a manned mission to Mars, a fierce storm leaves astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) stranded and presumed dead. Abandoned by his crew on the instruction of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and reeling from the knowledge that it will take four years for another mission to reach him, Watney is forced to use botany and biology to grow food on a desolate planet and find a way to communicate with NASA back on earth.
As the solitary survivor stuck in confined quarters, Damon must rise to a similar challenge that confronted mountaineer James Franco in 127 Hours or driver Tom Hardy in Locke. With wit and humour, Damon amps up his likability to 11 and delivers his best performance since Good Will Hunting and his back-to-back action hits The Departed and The Bourne Ultimatum. While the marooned Watney clearly possesses a unique and beautiful mind, the self-effacing Damon ensures that he always remains relatable.
The eclectic ensemble backs him up around every corner: Chastain is an obvious standout as the brave and resilient Ares III commander who feels responsible for Watney’s predicament. (Note to casting agents: The world needs more Jessica Chastain. Put her in any role you can find.) Other highlights include Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, a NASA missions director, and Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park, who runs satellite communications (the two have a priceless and witty exchange about halfway through the film).
The rest of the cast contribute in spades: Jeff Daniels is appropriately by-the-book as Teddy Sanders, head of NASA; Donald Glover is slyly funny as Rich Purnell; Sebastian Stan and Kate Mara have quirky chemistry as two members of Watney’s team (and share an adorable moment of intimacy in space). And Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), Hollywood’s go-to for the big screen’s ethically conscious, is above reproach as Mitch Henderson.
Unsurprisingly, screenwriter Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) has crafted a faithful adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel and streamlined it into a great balancing act: still nerdy and technologically aware, but accessible and totally enjoyable. With all due respect to Christopher Nolan’s sky-high ambitions (and the two actors who participated in both films), The Martian is Interstellar as it was meant to be.
Notwithstanding Black Hawk Down and American Gangster, veteran director Ridley Scott has made no less than ten disastrous failures in the past 15 years (Gladiator and Prometheus may have their legitimate defenders, but don’t get me started on Hannibal or Kingdom of Heaven or A Good Year or Robin Hood or The Counselor or Exodus: Gods and Kings). It was almost to the point where audiences forgot that Scott was capable of making something better than trash-compacter quality.
Thankfully, then, especially for a staunch supporter of Alien and Blade Runner as brilliant masterpieces and landmark works of cinema, The Martian rights the ship. By some measure, it’s the best thing that Scott’s directed since 1991’s Thelma & Louise. The 1970s soundtrack and visual effects are right on target, and the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski showcases Mars’ stunning fictional landscapes.
Throughout, it feels as though Damon is playing a version of himself and he occasionally leans too heavily on Goddard’s quippy, clever script. The film’s multiple strands whittle away at overall narrative cohesiveness, and the ending could have been tightened up. Yet if it seems like The Martian’s trademark optimism is more Steven Spielberg than Ridley Scott, it’s excusable in the service of such a rousing crowdpleaser. It’s not 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Tree of Life, and it’s not trying to be.
Built to present sweet messages in appealing packaging and destined to earn tens of millions at the box office (and to remind viewers why Damon is a venerable leading man), The Martian is easy popcorn entertainment that should be embraced, not resisted. Perhaps Scott should stay in space where he belongs.