A few dozen days (or, as a rotation of the planet is referred to in NASA jargon, “sols”) into his lonely survival ordeal on Mars, the stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) delivers a kind of mission statement into the video log he’s recording for posterity. Faced with the challenge of finding or creating enough food and water to survive the four years until the next mission is scheduled to reach the red planet, Mark decides, with the beleaguered optimism of a born survivor, to “science the shit out of this.”
That was pretty much also the strategy of Andy Weir, who wrote the best-selling sci-fi novel on which The Martian is based. Weir, a software engineer and the son of a physicist, put in meticulous research to support his speculations about the viability of, say, indoor agriculture in a Mars habitat (Mark’s eventual, if temporary, solution to the what-to-eat problem). I couldn’t say to what degree Ridley Scott’s adaptation, in turn, sciences the shit out of Weir’s source material. But Scott has, against all odds, broken one of the most fundamental laws of physics: the tendency of systems toward entropy. Scott’s recent films, many of them grand-scale spectacles (Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings) have grown progressively longer, slower, and more ponderous. Now, suddenly, the director has changed course with a movie that, while certainly long—The Martian approaches 2½ hours—feels as bouncy and light as a beach ball.
If that’s not the metaphor you prefer for your sci-fi blockbusters—if you like them on the more philosophically weighty side—then there are plenty of movies out there for you already. The Martian is a nerdy process film about outer space survival, with a boyish indifference to archetypal symbolism (cf. Gravity) or brooding debates about fate and free will (cf. Interstellar). Don’t bother asking Damon’s Mark Watney how he feels about being completely alone on a planet inhospitable to human life, where it’s very likely he’ll starve to death before help can reach him. He’ll simply throw a spade over his shoulder, repair a crack in his helmet with duct tape, and head out to shovel some more good red Mars dirt.
In that dirt—fertilized by the human waste left behind in vacuum-sealed packs by Mark and his former crewmates—he will grow enough potatoes to buy himself a few hundred more sols’ worth of food supply. Meanwhile the Hermes, the spaceship on which Mark was serving as team botanist, is on its way back to earth, its crew members still unaware that their colleague survived the dust storm that forced them to cut their mission short.
As many observers have noted, The Martian isn’t Matt Damon’s first go-round as the sole inhabitant of a hostile alien world: Last year, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar landed the actor in a similar pickle. (Damon has also done his share of plodding through barren desertscapes here on Earth, in Gus Van Sant’s black-comic parable Gerry.) It’s easy to see why Damon would be your go-to stuck-on-a-planet actor. He’s Robinson Crusoe via the Hardy Boys, stalwart without being stolid and hopeful without being (thank God) chipper. And as written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Drew Goddard—whose touch with snappy dialogue is largely responsible for The Martian’s unexpected buoyancy—Mark Watney is funny, a quality too seldom exhibited by leading men in space. Mark’s ability to see the comic absurdity of his predicament even in moments of extreme peril comes to seem inseparable from his iron will to live, and Damon conveys that connection without ever straining for bathos. The early scenes have an austere one-man show element, with Damon interacting only with the video monitor where he records his log and the harsh Martian environment that constantly threatens to engulf him. (Many exteriors were filmed in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, a frequent movie stand-in for the fourth planet from the Sun.)
By about halfway through, though, the solar system of The Martian has gotten pretty crowded. In addition to a following the progress of the Hermes—captained by Jessica Chastain, with a crew that includes Michael Peña and Kate Mara—the audience is gradually introduced to a boatload of supporting characters at NASA’s Houston headquarters: Jeff Daniels as the PR-conscious head of the space program. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director who presses him to prioritize Watney’s rescue once they realize the stranded botanist is still alive. Kristen Wiig as NASA’s snippy director of PR (who, confusingly, has the same first name as her Bridesmaids character, making you wonder how she went from cupcake entrepreneur to aerospace bureaucrat). Donald Glover as an entry-level astrodynamicist with a left-field idea about how to speed up the rescue mission.
The plan for Watney’s rescue may rely on solid science (even if some of the last-minute MacGyvering with tarps and duct tape seems a little sketchy). But dramatically, the final hour of The Martian is pure hokum, albeit of the most satisfying kind. Watney tinkers with the space junk at his encampment to engineer a solar-powered roving vehicle, all to the accompaniment of a left-behind playlist of vintage disco, ABBA, and David Bowie (no, not “Life on Mars,” but something almost as thematically apropos). Back on Earth, the Chinese and the Americans agree to collaborate on an unprecedented international mission to save the stranded astronaut.
Like Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, The Martian offers a deeply optimistic vision of the future of space travel—it’s utopic rather than dystopic. But unlike Tomorrowland, The Martian neither scolds nor preaches. In a way, it’s Saving Private Ryan without the World War II setting (or the breathable atmosphere)—a simple, moving tale of comrades rallying to retrieve Matt Damon. Dariusz Wolski’s dazzling 3-D cinematography often shows people dwarfed by the immensity of their surroundings: Watney by the mountains and craters of Mars, the Hermes crew by the infinite blackness of outer space, even the NASA engineers huddled together under their enormous, and too often useless, screens. But the animating humanism of Scott’s film is irreducible. It’s a wry tribute to the qualities that got our species into space in the first place: our resourcefulness, our curiosity and our outsized, ridiculous, beautiful brains.