With ideas like cryogenic sleep and warp speed, the movies have a tendency to make space travel look easy. Not Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an enthralling and rigorously realistic outer-space survival story in which Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist stranded on the Red Planet after a sandstorm forces his crewmates to abort mission. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon’s “right stuff” hero has to get by on his own wits and “science the sh–” out of his predicament. It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s “science fact” adaptation. Considering that the United States hasn’t launched a manned space mission since 2011, “The Martian” should do far more than just make Fox a ton of money; it could conceivably rekindle interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of future astronauts.
As Mark Watney, Damon serves as the poster boy for these future space travelers, a good-humored, all-American team player who’s just 18 “sols” (or Martian days) into his mission when he is impaled by a communications antenna and left for dead by his colleagues during a forced evacuation. Watney is the lowest-ranking member of his team and the least equipped to handle such a situation, with one notable caveat: As a botany specialist, his assignment was to investigate whether plants could grow in an environment without fertilizer or water — and now, with only enough food to last 400 sols and the next planned mission nearly four years away, Watney’s ability to pull off that tall order will determine whether he lives or dies. Actually, there are a thousand different real-world things that could kill him, but it’s clear he won’t survive unless he manages to “cultivate” Mars.
Before “Gravity,” studio executives might have thought twice before greenlighting such a big-budget space drama (surely such Mars-set disappointments as “Red Planet,” “John Carter” and “Mission to Mars” must have given them pause), and while a good portion of “The Martian’s” audience will surely be hoping for a repeat of Sandra Bullock’s white-knuckle experience, Scott has a different agenda altogether. The helmer is already responsible for two of most influential sci-fi movies of all time, “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” and he has better things to do than repeat himself — or anyone else, for that matter.
“The Martian” finds Scott and his team innovating once again, this time moving in the direction of the plausible to present the most realistic version possible of a manned mission to Mars (with a few well-chosen stylistic flourishes courtesy of costume designer Janty Yates). Though the film proves reasonably suspenseful in parts, Scott isn’t trying to generate the same real-time intensity as “Gravity” (in fact, “The Martian” takes place over nearly two years, demanding an altogether different pace). Nor does he distract himself with attempting to pioneer the field of 3D filmmaking, though he does incorporate the technology in effective yet nondistracting ways.
At its most basic, “The Martian” serves as an epic homage to the nerd — a deferential widescreen celebration of human intelligence in a genre that so often hinges on speed, braun or sheer midi-chlorian levels (thanks for nothing, George Lucas). And while Watney may be stranded by himself on Mars, he’s anything but alone, with the best minds on Earth working overtime to bring him home — if only he can figure out how to communicate with the good folks at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Nothing brings the people of this planet together quite like space travel, and Scott manages to alternate between the immediate Reader’s Digest appeal of Watney’s sol-to-sol survival on Mars with the unifying impact his potential rescue has back on Earth, where TV viewers follow every development and the Chinese even declassify a secret space program in order to help.
With no acid-dripping extraterrestrials to menace him on Mars and no James Cameron-style greedy corporate villains ready to sacrifice him on Earth (just Jeff Daniels, still in “The Newsroom” mode, as a pragmatic NASA honcho forced to make some tough calls), “The Martian” feels downright, well, Martian compared with the vast majority of space-travel dramas. It’s not without precedent, however. The sleek, science-friendly elegance of Arthur Max’s production design recalls “Silent Running” (another sci-fi parable with a botanist hero), while its running series of logistical challenges echoes Arthur C. Clarke sequel “2010.” But instead of trying to scare people off space travel, Scott and company recombine these elements in hopes of inspiring a generation for whom the moon landing and shuttle missions are now ancient history, practically nostalgia, while the American space program sits mothballed.
While not propaganda per se, the film seeks to galvanize (rather than terrorize) those who might shape the future. That was the hollow promise “Tomorrowland” offered this past summer, featuring a feel-good epilogue in which its white heroes recruited a diverse range of talented young people around the world. But instead of waiting for that time to come, “The Martian” puts man’s potential for problem solving to to the test today, assembling a gender-balanced, multi-culti cast and combining their brightest ideas to save Damon’s character.
Scott recycles some of his cast (including mission commander Jessica Chastain) from Christopher Nolan’s eye-crossing “Interstellar,” in which Damon played an astronaut with far more sinister intentions, and though “The Martian” can be even more densely geek-speak in places, Goddard’s script manages to parse the technical jargon for lay viewers. As Michael Pena puts it, “But like in English, what would that be?” after his colleagues hit him with one of their more technical solutions. (Chastain and Pena share the return vessel with Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and a half-serious Kristen Wiig brainstorm from the ground.)
Weir did his research when writing the novel, basing each of Watney’s MacGyver-like solutions (using recycled human waste to turn Thanksgiving potatoes into a viable crop, burning hydrazine rocket fuel to create water, etc.), as well as their subsequent setbacks (killer Martian frost, explosive chemical reactions), on scenarios that could reasonably arise on Mars. Scott carries that scrupulous adherence to science forward in the film, eschewing a more predictable suspense-movie score from composer Harry Gregson-Williams in favor of the sort of mellow musical chain reaction heard in natural-science docs and Discovery Channel reality shows. The idea here is to capitalize on the excitement of human ingenuity, the musical metaphor for which can be heard percolating behind the team’s every breakthrough — and they are a team. Unlike so many films that cast heroism as the doing of a single rebellious soul, this one does justice to the idea that truly amazing feats depend on the collaboration of exceptional people. In “The Martian,” we identify with Damon, but he couldn’t do it without the planet’s best behind him.
Rather than giving Watney a Wilson volleyball or HAL-like supercomputer to chat with, Goddard relies on another of the book’s “Robinson Crusoe”-like touches (Daniel Defoe’s novel was written in the character’s voice and fooled early readers as a faux travelogue), giving him amusing “HAB journal” entries — or video diaries — in which to document his own progress. By applying 3D to these digital recordings as well, d.p. Dariusz Wolski seamlessly eases audiences between the intimate loneliness of Watney’s habitat and the magisterial land- and space-scapes beyond — no easy feat, as Ray and Charles Eames’ “Powers of Ten” proved the year Scott made his directorial debut.
Though Watney has already proven his resourcefulness by doctoring his own puncture wound, his recordings serve the dual purpose of giving him a chance to explain complicated science ideas while endearing us to Damon’s naturally charismatic personality. The poor guy does his best to keep his mind active on Mars, but with only a collection of disco hits and “Happy Days” episodes to simulate human company, even the sanest astronaut would start to go a little stir-crazy — although, admittedly, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” has seldom seemed a more appropriate anthem.