Over the better part of two decades, Matt Damon has been the saved (Saving Private Ryan) and on more than one occasion, he’s managed to save an entire country (Invictus) and even the world (Elysium). Last year, he essayed Dr. Mann (Man) in Christopher Nolan‘s magnum opus of time, space, and love, Interstellar. To quote one character, Mann was the “best of us,” except he wasn’t the best of us, not by several million light years. This time out, though, Damon gets to indeed play the “best of us,” an irony-free, nearly super-heroic botanist inadvertently stranded on Mars (left for dead by his mission crew after a category awful dust storm) and forced to fend for himself, Robinson Crusoe-style (not to be confused with Robinson Crusoe on Mars, an entirely different film from a more innocent, more naïve time, i.e., 1964). Damon’s hero-botanist, Mark Watney, may be an every-man on the surface, but he’s also a science hero with a big brain and vast reservoirs of scientific knowledge, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.
The Martian offers a bright, clean vision of the near future where everyone works together for the common good, a near Utopian vision rarely seen on film or on TV. Of course, that vision doesn’t preclude a monumental cock-up, the hurried departure of the first manned Mars mission with the aforementioned Mark Watney left behind, the victim of an errant antenna that destroys his biometer, pierces his side (shades of another lord and savior), but manages to seal his ruptured space suit long enough for Watney to stagger back to the pressurized habitat meant for a crew of six, but now the home of one. With supplies for only an earth year and the next manned mission four years away, Watney faces a major dilemma: How to survive long enough to be rescued? Luckily, Watney is not only a botanist, but he’s an all-around science-hero, quickly figuring out the how behind growing food (potatoes, nothing but potatoes) inside the habitat, rigging up water from spare fuel left behind, and otherwise making the best of it with the only music (disco era hits) bequeathed to him by his commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain).
NASA discovers Watney’s still alive long before they inform the other members of his crew, now hurtling back through the chasm of space to Earth, a decision made by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the head of NASA and the closest The Martian comes to an antagonist. With nurturing and sustaining NASA’s space program his central goal, Teddy repeatedly hesitates in responding to Watney’s situation, weighing physical risks (to the crew), financial risks (to the space program) and perception (both the public and the congressional committees that oversee and approve funding). While less than sympathetic, he’s never relegated to the role of villain, a welcome change or break from mainstream narrative conventions. In fact, everyone aboard the Ares III mission to Mars, from Lewis on down to mission pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), keyboard specialist Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Shaw), and the sole non-American, Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), epitomize not only the best and the brightest, but also the most unselfish and compassionate members the human race has to offer.
The Martian unfolds through roughly three parallel, interwoven story-lines, Watney’s ongoing struggle to overcome obstacles and defeats interspersed with v-logs to fill in the audience on the science behind Watney’s decisions and his inner struggles (few and far between given Watney’s profound belief in the power of science to solve any problem, regardless of complexity or severity), the aforementioned Ares III crew (notified of Watney’s survival only late in the film), and the earthbound members of NASA’s team led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel jiofor), the Mars Mission Director with key contributions or assists from Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), the head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tasked with preparing an emergency food dump on Mars to extend Watney’s life, Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), NASA’s PR chief, Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), a NASA analyst who first discovers Watney’s still alive on Mars.
Thankfully scaling back the narrative and thematic ambitions of his last two efforts (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Prometheus), Ridley Scott brings his decades-long experience as an A-list director with a specialty in world-bringing to telling what’s essentially a small-scale, intimate story of one man’s struggle to survive in an alien, unforgiving planet and the efforts to save him. Not, of course, that The Martian isn’t filled with spectacle; it certainly is, but Scott doesn’t linger more than necessary to underscore a particular theme or idea (Watney’s isolation or loneliness) or underline a narrative one (the various set pieces involving the Ares III). Even the well-earned payoff, Watney’s last, best chance of survival focuses less on visual effects (though they’re there) and more on the human element, the nearly Herculean efforts to save Watney and in an unspoken sense, affirm the value and importance, not to mention the singularity, of every life (a cynic would cite Damon’s movie star status, gender, or ethnicity to counter the preceding statement, but we won’t do that here).