You’re trapped alone on Mars, 34 million miles from Earth, without enough food or water to survive long enough for help to reach you. What do you do? If you’re Mark Watney, you look around and say “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Watney is part of a manned mission to Mars that goes South when a raging dust storm tears that mission to pieces. He’s left for dead on the surface. From the moment that he wakes up, he gets to work on the business of survival, patching himself up and taking stock of the situation before showing us that science is awesome. Even if that science is growing potatoes in the poop of your friends. Matt Damon works well as Watney, channelling a practical doggedness and resilience, moments of resignation and rage, and a flippant sense of humour that makes sure we’re never too bummed out by the relentless fight for survival.
He’s not totally alone. When NASA realises that Watney is still alive we get to see Chiwetel Ejiofor heading efforts to rescue him, alongside a frostily practical Jeff Daniels as head of NASA, Kristen Wiig spikily managing the PR, and Sean Bean, who just seems to be there to be crumpled and crotchety. Watney’s crewmates also come into the action as they first deal with their guilt and grief before becoming part of the rescue effort. The interactions between Watney and his crew are when the movie is at its most warm and human.
It’s all pretty faithful to Andy Weir’s novel, which everyone I know seemed to be raving about for the last year. In recent years we’ve seen a little revival to the space movie genre that has made me (and presumably NASA) very happy. The Martian isn’t as thoughtful or ambitious as Gravity or Interstellar, but it does science the shit out of you, and it turns out that it’s a pretty satisfying feeling. It’s about the will to survive, and how the capacity for human invention is awesome. I don’t know how believable the science is, but there are really only a couple of moments where you might actively think that it’s silly.
And it’s a beautiful film. Ridley Scott’s best in years. Mars looks wonderful throughout the movie. It shimmers with iridescent rocky beauty across the vistas and howls with menace as dust particles threaten to tear open Watney’s fragile shelters. If anything though, it’s not quite threatening enough. The Martian’s only real weakness is that it doesn’t hit you with enough curveballs to make you really clench your seat.
The Martian is a smart, enjoyable science-fiction thriller, and it trusts the audience to enjoy a story of survival against the odds without layering on the schmaltz. There are no conjured melodramatic antagonists, bullshit conflicts or magic ex machinas. It’s about science, space, and humans working together. And that’s pretty awesome.
GS Blogger: Daniel Paul