Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askel Hennie, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean
Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.
The castaway tale is not a new one, but “The Martian” brings us a sci-fi take on it: rather than being stranded on a deserted island, our protagonist is stranded on Mars. While experts and enthusiastic amateurs will doubtless find plenty of errors to point out, this is a ripping yarn suitable for anybody who likes to see human spirit and ingenuity overcome impossible situations.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is one of six astronauts on a manned mission to Mars when a dust storm forces them to abandon their base and cut the planned month-long expedition short. When Watney is blown away by debris and they can’t find him or any trace of his various signals, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the tough decision to take off without him.
Of course, Watney survives (pretty implausibly if you know much about abdominal wounds), and finds himself stranded with no way to contact Earth and only enough supplies and shelter for the very limited mission he was once part of. Determined not to give up, Watney finds ways to make his own food, to utilize the remains of other, earlier Mars missions to hack together communications equipment, and to survive on a completely inhospitable planet until there’s a way to bring him home. The higher-ups at NASA, meanwhile, have to juggle time and resources while under public scrutiny.
Damon clearly had a blast playing Watney, and it’s easy to see why: he’s a highly intelligent, funny, likeable guy who gets to make jokes in between edge-of-your-seat, life-or-death moments and long struggles to figure out how to solve a problem. It’s pretty obvious that Watney will make it (how depressing would a two hour movie be if the hero died before he could be rescued?), but exactly how he’s going to make it is not clear at all. It’s exciting to watch somebody smart solving seemingly impossible problems. The rest of the cast balances comedic relief and bureaucratic challenges well, making the various players sympathetic even when we disagree with them.
The special effects are solid and there’s excellent attention to visual details like the fit of Watney’s space suit (which gets larger on him as he loses weight from food rationing). Mars is both stunningly beautiful and completely inhospitable. The crafts used to travel in space are elegant and spare, while the vehicles for getting up into space really drive home the knowledge that we essentially put people on top of explosives and blow them up to get them out of the gravity well of a planet.
“The Martian” is a top-notch adventure story, and while some of the details may annoy hard sci-fi fans and folks in the know about modern space travel, this is time well spent for folks looking for some excitement and a tribute to human ingenuity.