THE MARTIAN or (How a Geeked-out Gardener Saved His Own Life) stars our most down to earth actor in an out of this world saga that grabs us in its first few minutes, takes us on a wild ride, and features a signature performance in one of the best films of the year to date. MATT DAMON– yeah, I love him, you love him– has found a marvelous role for his everyman warm-heartedness (while being just enough of a wise ass) to make us fall for his character hook, line, and sinker.
In THE MARTIAN, Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney who during a mission to Mars, becomes stranded there when his crew, threatened by a sudden storm, is forced to scuttle their mission and leave him behind believing he’s dead. Well, he isn’t dead, but he soon might be. He wakes up alone, wounded, half buried in a pile of red/brown Martian sand, with limited supplies, no way to communicate, and the crew 4 years away from a possible rescue. Oh, and he is armed with the least heroic of skill sets– he’s a botanist.
Watney without missing a beat, immediately sets about doing a little self-surgery, then tackles the problem of food. With his feet planted firmly on the ground, he begins “growing” his way out of a tough spot–and Damon roots us in one of the most charismatic performances of his career in a tale of extraordinary ingenuity, resilience, and courage in the face of ridiculous odds. Will he survive? Will this movie survive a plot that is largely dependent on astro-physical audacity to ramp up the tension? Leave it to an excellent screenplay and a great director to keep us fully engaged.
Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN, THELMA & LOUISE, GLADIATOR, BLACK HAWK DOWN) who hasn’t made a really great film in awhile, knows just where to place the camera in Drew Goddard’s taut screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-seller. The script is laced with extraordinary scientific detail, humor, and an absorbing central character. THE MARTIAN’s author is a self-described science nerd and son of a particle physicist, and the film glories in that geekery. As Watney stares at his options, calculating he has to make enough food and water to last four years, he matter-of- factly declares: “I’m gonna have to ‘science’ the shit out of this.” My audience exploded in laughter and delight.
Watney then makes like “Mr. Wizard” on steroids, and thanks to Scott’s clear sense of pacing and knowing how to focus the drama around a myriad details, we find ourselves glued to every nuance of the “how to.” Watney’s on-the-fly inventiveness, requires every molecule of his knowledge and creativity while his thinking aloud during each step of the process keeps us all in the loop. It’s FASCINATING! I’m given to understand that most of what this scientist-astronaut accomplishes on Mars is more than plausible and in fact, highly accurate within the realm of science.
Meanwhile, a parallel set of physical challenges and dramatic complications are taking shape back on earth. The powers that be, i.e. Jeff Daniels who’s equal parts reason and empathy as the head of NASA, has decided it’s not a good idea to tell Watney’s crew that he’s still alive, believing they’d be distracted by guilt over leaving him behind and unable to focus on getting back. The crew is an adventurous bunch of cracker jack scientist/astronauts played by a stellar cast including Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and mission captain Jessica Chastain who projects all the gravitas the job demands.
Then there’s the science needing to be worked out in order to somehow establish communication with Watney so he can phone home and collaborate on a viable solution for getting back to earth. Like a combination APOLLO 13/CASTAWAY, the film involves a race against time, money, means, and priorities: the future of the space program vs. the rescue of one life. Daniels’ character is caught in this conundrum, and navigates the good/bad guy part with aplomb. He’s surrounded by an ace team of NASA administrators played by a strong cast in secondary roles: the always warm and compelling Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig whose befuddled character gets lost in the shuffle, and Sean Bean as the renegade conscience behind the scenes. My one quibble is that these stars didn’t have enough room to shine in thinly written parts.
What unites them all, the guys and gals in the executive suite and the t-shirted kids in Mission Control and beyond, is their absolute infatuation with science. They are a network of nerds who recognize each other, can all quote from the literature, a rockin’ team of rocket scientists working ’round the clock to get their guy home alive. There’s one young astrophysicist, engineering, math wiz (Donald Glover) who comes up with a simple, ingenious out of the box plan at the 11th hour. The mutinous derring-do on the part of the crew who must execute the rescue mission against all odds, is as exciting as anything I’ve ever seen at the movies.
But the rock solid center of the film is Matt Damon who is better than anyone at simultaneously conveying nobility of purpose and self-deprecating bravado. He is utterly convincing, inspiring, funny, and irresistible in the role, handling the elaborate scientific jargon so off-handedly, I almost felt like I understood it. His casual way with a line, makes us believe every moment as he tosses off goofy asides with easy wit and crack comic timing. So when Damon’s Watney at one point does lose it, it’s downright devastating.
There’s also a very funny running joke about the music he’s left stranded with on Mars: nothing but disco! While our astronaut is busy “Stayin’ Alive” with disco diva Donna Summer heating up the winter of his discontent, the propulsive heartbeat of these tracks at key moments ratchets up the humor and momentum. Those retro disco tunes are put to hilariously triumphant use in the final moments of a bracing denouement when everything can and still might go wrong.
THE MARTIAN is an ironic title for a movie which pays unabashed tribute to the best and most deeply human in all of us, the will to survive, the scope of our intelligence, the consciousness of ourselves as simultaneously significant and minute in the universe. Ridley Scott balances the intimate and the interstellar in an intoxicatingly accessible adventure of science and spirit. THE MARTIAN is simply– out of this world.