THE MARTIAN asks some tough metaphysical questions as it answers some thorny scientific problems with nifty solutions. What’s worth living for? What’s worth dying for? And why should giving up never be an option?
The premise is daunting. Mark Watney (Matt Damon), ace botanist and member of the Ares 3 exploratory expedition to Mars in the near future, is left behind when a freak windstorm forces the team leader, Lewis (Jessica Chastain), to abort the mission. There is an irony, and a glimpse of what will follow, as Watney shouts out the inklings of a plan to save the mission just as a piece of flying debris cuts off his communication. In another bit of neat irony, it’s the dirt, rather than sand, on the Martian surface, the which he has just discovered, that keeps the rest of the crew from being able to see a more than a few inches in front of their helmets, making a visual search impossible, and staying until the storm passes too risky a gamble with all their lives.
Heartbroken but stalwart, the crew heads back to Earth. On Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) delivers a moving eulogy for Watney, and the head of the Mars project, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), starts pushing for an additional mission to Mars beyond the planned two more, with bringing Watney’s body back as the unofficial objective. Meanwhile, on Mars, Watney has, for wonderfully scientific reasons, survived being speared by a communications antenna, and sets about trying to stay alive for the four years it will take for someone to rescue him.
There were any number of bad way to go about telling this story, but Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, avoided all of them. Watney is no super hero. He is a very smart guy with a great sense of humor and an even greater sense of adventure about what he is called upon to do. That would be starting by performing light surgery on himself to remove the antenna, and then going about pondering his options, and then deciding not to die. Using the device of a log, Watney speaks directly to us, working out the problems of rationing supplies, growing food (you will never look at a potato in quite the same way again), and making contact with NASA despite a complete communications failure due to that windstorm.
On the Earth side of that communication problem, it’s the sharp eyes of a graveyard-shift technician, spurred by Kapoor’s persistence about finding a way to fund an additional Mars flight, that see clear evidence that Watney is alive. Not just alive, but working on something that Kapoor can hypothesize about with using logic and intuition, and hypothesize about with a fair degree of certainty. As the film cuts back and forth between the two men on different worlds, but with a single thought, there is the suspense of a thriller at work, a suspense that holds throughout the film as a whole.
Each problem finds an elegant, and perfectly sound, solution, from making water out of thin air, to the miracle that is duct tape. In the person of Damon, Watney is endlessly engaging, smart, cocky, but not an egoist. Able to bounce back from setbacks with a self-deprecating humor and a bottomless reserve of optimism. Yet, it’s not a cockeyed optimism. This is a guy who decides to dip his potato in crushed Vicodin after some bad news to take the edge off the disappointment. He’s also the guy who, after first taking stock of his left-behind situation, delivers one of the most heartfelt and justified expletives in movie history. And delivers it with all the passion for which such expletives were invented.
Why this is so much more than an exercise in sophistry is that the action is kept on such a very human level. Mark’s survival is at stake, but his sense of adventure in beating Mars is exhilarating, as is the way the entire world eventually comes together pulling for him to do so. In particular, the team at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who are enthused about trying to do the impossible, and the Ares 3 crew en route back to Earth who don’t want to be counted out of the action just yet. There is this look people get when they come up with a solution that has pure palpable and infectious glee. There is also the single-minded focus, as when the astrodynamics geek (Donald Glover) gets the glimmer of a scathingly brilliant plan, and literally falls over himself in his hurry to get to the super computer that can check his numbers.
Make no mistake, there is a lot of science in this film, some of it pretty sophisticated, yet all set out with that overlay of excitement and a slick exposition that makes it fun, not pedagogic. There is also a sweet attention to the details, not just the way water organizes itself into rippling globes when set loose in zero gravity, but also the way that astrodynamics geek’s breath is visible as he huddles in his parka while inside the supercomputer’s structure. Yes, they do have to keep it that cold in there, and it’s a factoid that could have been left out, but wasn’t. Also not left out is the sense of enormous volume and space of Mars, as rendered in the film’s 3D, that defines Mark’s situation long before he muses about being the first person in human history to be marooned alone on an entire planet. It’s also surprisingly effective when the camera angle is pitched low, and the focus close-up on the first of Mark’s seedlings to sprout. The plant may be small, but the implications are as enormous as the landscape.
THE MARTIAN is all about the difference between forward momentum and entropy. An adventure film for the intellect as well as the adrenaline glands, it is an emotional whirlwind as big as the storm that started Watney’s problems, and with a final 20 minutes that might just make you forget to breathe.