Like “Interstellar” before it, “The Martian” is the kind of movie where people will walk out going, “it was good, but that could totally never happen.” Oh are you one of the renowned astrophysics of the world, like Kip Thorne, who consults on these motion pictures? No? Your knowledge begins and ends with freshman physics? Then zip your lid, pay attention and accept the fact there’s a world filled with science you know zero about. You may learn something.
That’s exactly the beauty of “The Martian”: It’s a movie with all the sensibilities of a mainstream blockbuster that pairs the tried-and-true survival story with the mystery of science and exploration. The conflicts are solved not with awesome flying robots and men who fancy bats, but with equations, chemistry, aeronautics and many, many other things I understood none of. In short, I reckon it’s the dorkiest $150 million movie ever.
Usually with that kind of money you would expect to see elaborate set pieces that were riddled with production delays, filled with angry actors and blue people. But instead the movie opens on the pure, beautiful desolation of the Budapest landscape that provided the location of the Martian surface. The camera sweeps and glides over such vastness of red sand and mountainous peaks, separated by such immense distances of space that, though I hate to say, “I felt as though I was there,” will admit I had a hard time remembering this was actually shot on Earth.
There’s a majestic ease to it all, which you can tell rubbed off on the actors who slipped into their nerdy scientist characters with an equal level of naturalism. They are all dorky in their own right, which is benefitting, because this movie is about the triumph of the nerd. To name a few, there’s Lewis (Jessica Chastain), who loves disco too much for any one soul to bare; Johanssen (Kate Mara), whose loneliness drives her to play too many old computer games and; Vogel (Askel Hennie) who is German.
But most suitable for their role is the leading man himself, Matt Damon as Mark Watney, in a stellar feat of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones casting. No one is more perfect to play Watney, a hero of science nerds everywhere, than Damon. Damon’s natural compassion and humor is perfectly blended with Watney’s creativity and ability to lighten up the whole “stranded on a deserted planet” thing with constant wisecracks. If I could be stranded on a planet with anyone, it would be this man. Like the cool high school science teacher, he teaches you how to grow your own food while making a sexual joke about farmers in the process.
He’s the perfect protagonist, totally incapable of being hated. Which is why the second he becomes lost on Mars you want him to survive, like a puppy that got caught in a river. But more miraculous of a feat is how director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard made his journey for survival so enthralling by doing nothing but having Watney show off his intelligence.
Getting right into the action, Watney spends little time moping around looking at photos of lost loved ones, crying in a curled up ball. He is shown spending just enough time to contemplate, “Okay, what’s the deal here?” Even then, he’s thinking deeply, not whining. Then he picks himself up by his little space bootstraps and gets to work.
The movie is then paced vibrantly as it glides seamlessly between scenes of Watney being a bloody hilarious genius and humans working diligently on Earth to save him. Whether it’s through growing his own food using old fecal remnants, with the help of water he made himself through chemistry (or voodoo, depending on how you look at it), all the way to launching himself into space under what is essentially a tarp, there’s nothing Watney does that won’t completely mesmerize the mind. Unless you’re one of the aforementioned science police, then you’ll spend most of the time going, “nope, nope, couldn’t happen.”
To those people I say, this is Scott at his most Spielbergian, trading out his normally philosophical sci-fi with that of a simple one, making everything seem as believable as McDonalds finally serving breakfast all day. One man set up against impossible odds, using his intelligence to save himself and inspiring millions of imaginations in the process. Scott is a masterful filmmaker and hasn’t been this focused in years and thankfully its all been building up for this.
Much like Spielberg’s movies too, the story is set right on the leading actor, with a few useful side characters and then many who fulfill their purpose only to never be seen again. All of these latter characters are the people working at NASA. The ones who have the most to do are NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while others like Anne Montorse (Kritsten Wiig) and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) have a bit to do and then just hang out in the back.
Regardless of the many one-dimensional characters, I can already see the movie being played in schools everywhere, the teacher telling the kids to note everything Watney is doing so they can learn why it works so well (then throwing a piece of chalk at Derek, who is asleep in the back.) There is nothing about this movie that can’t be learned from. That goes for the science, struggle for survivor, examples from Watney on how to be an awesome person and even the international unity then inevitably saves him in the end. “The Martian” is a blockbuster for the modern era and not simply because of the awesome “Iron Man” reference.