There are those that like to assert that science is a religion of its own. That’s utter nonsense, for a variety of reasons that would require this entire review to unpack, but The Martian, in which an astronaut accidentally stranded on Mars decides he’s going to “science the shit” out of his dilemma, comes close to serving as the secular equivalent of faith-based inspirational films like God’s Not Dead and 90 Minutes In Heaven. Thankfully, it’s not as ham-fisted as that genre, and understands that any message should reside beneath a protective atmosphere of pure entertainment; the film works superbly as an adventure/disaster flick, albeit one that’s unusually focused on technical matters. Still, at its heart, The Martian is an unapologetically stirring celebration of our ability, as a species, to solve even the most daunting problems via rational thought, step by step by step. It’s basically Human Ingenuity: The Movie.
Faithfully adapted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods) from Andy Weir’s initially self-published sci-fi novel, and directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian imagines a near future, probably just a few decades from now, in which the U.S. is sending regular manned missions to the Red Planet. Early into one of them, a freak storm snaps a radio antenna and sends it hurling into engineer and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), apparently killing him—his biometric spacesuit indicates no sign of life, and the crew reluctantly heads back to Earth without him so the storm doesn’t swallow them up as well. But Watney has improbably survived, and awakens to find himself completely alone on a desolate world, with no hope of rescue for at least four years. His food supply (including the food for the five crew members who left) will last only a quarter of that time, but Watney, after a brief moment of despair, decides he’s not going down without a fight. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA eventually notices, via satellite, that he’s still alive, and the best minds on the planet get to work figuring out how they can help save him. Given that Jessica Chastain plays the captain of the abandoned mission, accompanied by the likes of Kate Mara and Michael Peña, it’s just possible that this may involve turning a certain spaceship around, though that’s not exactly as easy as turning an airplane around. (Cue Donald Glover as a manic astrodynamicist.)
Sticking closely to Weir’s novel, which is extremely nuts-and-bolts, Goddard and Scott subordinate everything to a detailed chronicle of the various difficulties Watney faces and his painstaking efforts to overcome them. All Is Lost, the movie about Robert Redford alone on a sinking sailboat in the middle of the ocean, memorably achieved something similar with virtually no dialogue, but Watney’s methods are too complex to be readily grasped by non-scientists. He maintains a regular video log, explaining to the camera how, for example, he’s converting hydrazine into water, so that he can irrigate a potato farm he’s managed to create from the handful of spuds that were onboard for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner. And Damon has a lot of fun playing Watney as the gigantic nerd Weir conceived—the kind of guy who, when ordered by NASA to provide a publicity photo, decides to strike a Fonzie pose. (His hatred of disco, which is the only music he can find among the crew’s belongings, is a running gag.) Had The Martian been just a Cast Away–style survival tale, with the video log serving as Wilson, few would have complained.
Nonetheless, it’s the scenes set on Earth that give the film much of its inspirational punch. Weir isn’t particularly skilled at dialogue or characterization (or elegant prose, for that matter; he’s a technician who works with words), and the actors playing NASA personnel—including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, and Benedict Wong—are mostly stuck playing mouthpieces. And there’s a legitimate argument to be had, which the film never even raises, about the ethics of spending what must be billions of dollars to rescue one astronaut, when the same money could potentially save many thousands of lives at home. (Admittedly, it’s Matt Damon, who was also deemed important enough to bring home, no matter the cost, in Saving Private Ryan.) But the movie, though decidedly America-centric, imagines the entire world consumed with Watney’s fate—China plays an especially key role—and there’s a rousing “We can do this!” attitude throughout that’s genuinely hopeful about mankind’s future. For viewers worried about climate change and other existential threats, The Martian will be the rah-rah event of the year. Without ever openly stating as much, it suggests that we might well all be martians one day.