Ask a man to run a 5K. Snap a picture of the reaction on his face. When he’s done with that, ask him to run a 10K. Snap a picture. Half marathon. Snap. Marathon. Snap. Triathlon. Snap. Ultra marathon. Snap. Now you have a series of pictures, a flipbook version of Ridley Scott’s grueling new sci-fi juggernaut The Martian, a movie about one man’s epic endurance battle with science, space and the limitations of duct tape.
Matt Damon is the Martian, and he’s stranded on the Red Planet after a violent dust storm has swept him away from his NASA team as they are aborting their 30-day mission a dozen or so days early. They rocket away thinking he’s dead, but the next day he claws from the soil very much alive and very much screwed. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” he says in an instantly iconic line that will be on every Matt Damon clip reel from here on out.
What a fascinating time to be making science fiction films. Gravity and Interstellar were terrific warm-ups to this, and the three films make an amazing trilogy about discovery and survival in the endless vastness that is our universe. Scott’s an old pro at this, having already made Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus, each with their own distinct visions of the future. Here, though, he sticks closer to the “science” versus the “fiction” and the story thrives because of it.
The film presents Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney — and by extension us — with a never-ending string of problems. The Mars base was designed for 31 sols, or Martian days, and now must last upwards of 800 to sustain its solitary inhabitant. Food is in short supply. Plants have never been grown in Martian soil. Water is running low. The communication system is broken. The rover has limited range and abilities. On and on the list goes, each new item more challenging than the one before it. Each problem has its own gratifying solution that seems either based on actual science or at the very least plausible.
The Martian finds its footing almost instantly by starting on Mars a dozen or so days into the mission. It doesn’t waste time introducing an endless stream of supporting characters, because Watney’s ordeal allows that to happen naturally. It drops all the setup and goes right to the meat: Mark is struggling to stay alive, the crew is questioning their decision to leave what they presumed was a dead astronaut back on the Mars, and NASA engineers back on earth begin assessing what went wrong. It feels very procedural, and that’s part of the charm because it allows the snappy editing and concise presentation to build the story from the ground up.
The film has also found the right cast, especially with Damon as the resourceful botanist. He’s likeable and genuine, and he does things that we can relate to, like when he mouths a great big “WTF” in the initial days after he’s marooned. Damon also works because he’s believable as an inventive science geek. It wasn’t a stretch when he was a genius mathematician in Good Will Hunting, and it’s not a stretch here to see him as a NASA wiz-kid. You’ll cheer him on when he creates an ASCII-to-hexadecimal code board, or he tears through poop pouches to get fertilizer, or he rigs up an explosive hydrogen tent to create water. There is so much to see, and so much for Damon to do, that there is never a dull moment, even when the film is in its most reflective, existential state.
Now, to be sure, this is a terrifying ordeal. And The Martian spends a lot of it kicking its hero when he’s down. Your heart just aches for him with every setback, and there are many. Drew Goddard’s script, from an Andy Weir novel, has this devilish ability to prepare you for the worst over and over again. So many awful events happen to Mark Watney that you start planning for them, assembling them into the plot even where their not needed. At one point when he was driving the rover through the rocky landscape, he starts rubbing his eyes and yawning, and my first thought was he was going to fall asleep at the wheel and roll the vehicle over. The movie had conditioned me for disaster, and I was ready for it, whether it was coming or not.
Led by a strong team of actors — including Damon, Jessica Chastain as the mission commander, Jeff Daniels as the NASA director, Sean Bean as a flight specialist with a classic Lord of the Rings zinger, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as mission lead — The Martian takes a captivating tale of survival and gives it an immediate presence with strong writing and expert execution. It’s photographed gorgeously, with a fun mixture of documentary-like POV shots, found footage and epic Martian panoramas, and edited so precisely that you would be hard pressed to find a single frame that’s been wasted. I simply can’t say a bad thing about it because it’s one of the most entertaining movies of the year.