These days, when you hear “superhero movie” you probably think of a comic book characters with some kind of amazing power, fighting crime as skyscrapers tumble around them. But The Martian proves such a hero can come in another form entirely– a solo scientist who has to jury-rig his way off of the surface of Mars.
Based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian tells the engrossing story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist/astronaut who is stranded on the Red Planet after his crew thinks he died during their evacuation from a brutal storm. Turns out, though, Watney survived (though only barely), and with every conceivable odd stacked against him, he has to keep surviving long enough for a rescue mission to reach him– that is, after NASA realizes (two months later) that he actually is still alive.
Anyone who’s read Weir’s book knows The Martian is jam-packed with science. Talk of radioactive isotopes and splitting molecules dominates, as Watney faces challenge after challenge and, with extremely limited resources, has to “make it work”. But at its heart, it’s a simple story of survival– a sort of Cast Away meetsApollo 13. And in director Ridley Scott’s capable hands, the movie soars and inspires.
Essentially three stories in one, The Martian not only follows Watney’s travails but also those of his space-traveling crew, who must decide what to do when they realize he has survived, and also the NASA executives back on Earth, who not only have a massive PR problem to deal with but also that little matter of bringing their boy back home.
Damon, for his part, is terrific and strengthens his standing as perhaps the most underrated actor at work today. The fact that he’s only scored two acting Oscar nominations (lead actor in 1998’s Good Will Hunting and supporting actor in 2010’s Invictus) is mind-boggling. The Martian basically revolves around him, and he carries the film with a performance that is at once intense, understated, and also, surprisingly, hilarious. Watney’s wry sense of humor (morbid and otherwise) injects some life into a story that may otherwise have been just another survival tale.
The supporting cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA bigwig, Jessica Chastain as the commander on Watney’s mission, and Michael Pena as her wise-cracking pilot, are also first-rate… though Jeff Daniels as the hard-headed NASA director and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s PR flak were both oddly mis-cast.
Along with Damon, director Scott is a big reason The Martian works. After a string of so-so efforts (Prometheus, chief among them), he proves that he still has the ability to transform audiences to another world. Choosing to use the red deserts of Jordan (instead of CGI) as Mars was a brilliant move, but it’s the outer space sequences (reminiscent of Gravity) that give The Martian its power. Damned if you don’t even feel a little weightless yourself as you sit in the theater.
Even though the script occasionally dips its toes into the pool of cliched lines, there’s more than enough at play in The Martian to make it one of the noteworthy films of the fall– a wild ride that, as a bonus, may just inspire a budding scientist to put down that Xbox controller, pick up a chemistry set, and one day become a real hero.
Worth the 3D glasses?
Indeed. Aside from the Mars storms (which are even more harrowing with debris flying in front of your face), the outer space sequences almost demand 3D, and the sweeping vistas of Mars/Jordan are made even more astounding with those charming glasses.