Like Apollo 13 and Gravity before it, The Martian is more outer space adventure than sci-fi. I prefer aliens with my sci-fi thank you very much, and, although The Martian obviously fits in the genre, it takes its cues mostly from the school of drama (and sometimes, from its uglier, lazier sister school: melodrama). The Martian is a smart, satisfying movie that hits every mark. So why is that bothersome?
Predictability, for one thing, hovers over the film, but The Martian pushes forward. There's only one way for this thing to end and *spoiler alert* it doesn't include Damon marooned for life on the title red planet. So the greatness of director Ridley Scott's film isn't in its resolution, but how we get there. The Martian is the kind of the movie you never want to end, like a vacation. You already know how it will. It just feels good going on the trip.
It's easy to get romantic about The Martian. It worships at the altar of Spielberg (Close Encounters, E.T.) while maintaining an edge of dark reality thanks to Scott, who knows his way around space movies (Alien, Prometheus). But the combination of heart and spectacle doesn't always mesh. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is a mostly faithful adaptation that realizes the book's compelling science while tamping down its cheesy humor.
Credit is owed to Matt Damon for the tamping part. The 44-year-old actor is going to be playing action heroes for a long time and, so far, astronaut Mark Watney is his smartest. Watney is left behind on Mars when a storm separates him from his Ares III crew and suddenly it's the mission or go back for him. But Watney's probably dead, his best friend, Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) admits. And Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough call to blast off.
Watney, like Max Rockatansky earlier this year, emerges from a dune of red sand and unconsciousness. He's got a piece of shrapnel sticking out of his belly, but he's okay. Watney returns to the habitat used by the crew and assesses his chances. Via a video journal, we hear his thoughts and, after a brief sequence where he calmly collects himself, things get pragmatic. Watney figures the math for how much food he needs to survive until the next Ares mission, years from now. Then he sets about putting his botany skills to use, covering the habitat with potato plants and burning hydrazine to make water. Fans of the book will appreciate the fact Weir's pop science (who cares if it works, it sounds like it does) translates onscreen. I never knew half of what Walter White was talking about on Breaking Bad. Watney and his potatoes will move you.
Back on Earth, NASA engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notices the rover on Mars has moved around and therefore Watney has survived. Mars expert and engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) works tirelessly with flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) while NASA Chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, in full Newsroom mode) supervises. They manage to communicate with Watney via hexadecimal code. Sanders and Henderson clash over the decision to inform the rest of the Ares III crew about their resurrected mate. When they do, Lewis assumes the blame and, eventually, a rescue mission is constructed using the exact same "slingshot trajectory" theory that was used in Armageddon. There's a weird young genius (Donald Glover) who comes up with it. The comic relief (Kristen Wiig and Michael Peña also have small roles) is constant, but Scott manages to keep the alert level high and the danger real.
The Martian stutters at times narratively (usually because of a forced joke), but that's a small complaint as the script, by cult legend Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), keeps the story humming along. Scott makes high level office conversations just as watchable as the beautiful space station sequences (the absence of gravity is especially cool). Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski's lens turns the deserts of Jordan into the desolate Mars landscapes surrounding Watney. And the costumes, by Oscar winner Janty Yates, are sleek and futuristic, evolved from her work on Prometheus. This is a technically beautiful film throughout, a sure Oscar contender in those categories.
Where does The Martian rank in the canon of Ridley Scott? It's not as visceral or as cool as Alien or Blade Runner. It doesn't have the tragedy of Gladiator, but it's right there with Thelma and Louise! Of course, comparisons are silly, but it's nice to see Scott pump out a memorable film again. It's one of his best. For Damon, the movie is further proof he's a (ahem) wicked good actor. He doesn't resort to existential hopelessness in this role. There's no log and rope scene, like in Cast Away. Watney may as well be stuck in Topeka. He makes the character real by convincing us he's smart, which yields hope, and that's why we go to the movies.