The Martian is a working man’s Mars movie, by which I mean it is light on wondering about our place in the universe (think Solaris, The Fountain, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and heavy on working out a way to get duct tape to seal an air leak. Even as a decided fan of deep-think sci-fi – and one who has trouble with a socket wrench – I found the film to be enthralling.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut who has been left to fend for himself on the Red Planet. (I’ll leave it for you to discover exactly how this happens.) He has a research station that has been designed to last about a month, a limited supply of food and water and no immediate way of contacting Earth. Yet indicative of the character (and Damon’s can-do performance), it isn’t until after Watney has unburied himself from a sand storm, marched back to the lab and removed a piece of shrapnel from his abdomen that he finally leans back to philosophically assess the situation. His verdict? A succinct “F$&@!”
The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Drew Goddard, proceeds in exactly this matter-of-fact manner. With the practical and affable Watney as our guide, we follow him, step by ingenious step, as he carves out an unlikely existence on Mars. Philosophizing is almost non-existent, save for a good-bye message he prepares for his parents and the observation that he’s the first human to encounter this terrain. The movie even pulls a fast one on us during a scene in which Watney watches a Happy Days rerun while thoughtfully twirling a crucifix. We expect to hear a statement on belief and hope, but instead Watney breaks the silence with this: “The problem is water.”
The Martian vistas – with their arid, sepia color scheme – come across less as threatening wastelands than tantalizing unexplored territories.
There is a no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality to Damon that is perfect for this. Perhaps too much so. There aren’t many instances in which the actor allows a crack to surface on Watney’s determined exterior. An unnerving exception occurs after there is a breach in the lab, and Watney has to install a plastic sheet as the only barrier between him and the lethal Martian atmosphere. As the howling wind causes the plastic to flap and pop, Watney lets out a low moan of his own.
Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) brings a horror hum to that scene, but for the most part he lends The Martian a visual optimism. Even the Martian vistas – with their arid, sepia color scheme – come across less as threatening wastelands than tantalizing unexplored territories, just awaiting 21st-century manifest destiny. This zeal carries over into the scenes at NASA headquarters, where teams of engineers and scientists scramble, Apollo 13-style, to jerry-rig a rescue attempt after they learn of Watney’s survival.
In the end, The Martian’s populist positivity may stretch credibility. (As the world gathers to watch Watney’s predicament, even China’s governmental space agency lends a hand!) Yet I found its faith in humanity more moving than that of Interstellar, and its streamlined sensibility more engaging than Scott’s last space foray, the laborious Prometheus. The Martian means to immerse us in one man’s daily efforts to survive some 140 million miles from home – nothing more, and certainly nothing less.