The Martian shouldn’t feel like such a treasure, and maybe twenty years ago, it wouldn’t have. Its closest cousin, Apollo 13, was nominated for Best Picture in 1995, back when feel-good movies could still dominate both the box office and awards season — which is not to say that they always did, but feel-good guys like Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis fared better then than they do now, critically speaking. Hollywood schmaltz is out of fashion — the occasional crowd-pleaser may sneak into the Oscar race now and again, but not that often.
We live in more cynical times now, and Ridley Scott is not a filmmaker you’d generally call “upbeat.” Chest-bursting aliens, brain-eating, a wire cutting through Brad Pitt’s neck, and two female BFFs driving over a cliff to meet their maker — these are just a few of the chipper cinematic scenarios Scott has graced us with.
So it’s surprising indeed that Scott is responsible for one of the most genuinely optimistic dramas to come along in ages. (Genuinely optimistic and genuinely good, that is.) The Martian has been released at the same moment as Zemeckis’ The Walk, which is interesting, since both are about men driven to achieve the impossible, isolating their protagonist from a crack team ensemble in the most crucial bits, with a hero who addresses the audience directly throughout the story, and a high likelihood that he will die (even if the audience is quite certain he won’t). The films share a common spirit and a light tone that may come as a surprise given their subject matter, but The Martian is the one with real gravity and emotional heft. Somehow, even with an upbeat outlook and some nimble comedy, Scott’s film stays firmly grounded in reality, so that we can genuinely feel those life-or-death stakes — and understand why its hero’s survival matters. One man’s life hangs in the balance, but it adds up to so much more.
The Martian is adapted from the popular novel by Andy Weir, telling the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut accidentally left for dead on the Red Planet, who finds he has no choice but to be the first colonist on Mars. Fortunately, Watney is a botanist, so he “sciences the shit” out of problems such as how to grow food on a planet that hasn’t been known to sustain plant or animal life, and how to send word back home that he’s still hanging on millions of miles from home.
You might expect The Martian to follow the Cast Away approach, stranding us with Watney to exacerbate his isolation. Instead, The Martian is filled with a sizable chunk of supporting players, filled out by an impressive roster of talent: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Pena. This is not the first time Ridley Scott has managed to pull together an all-star cast in a movie that might seem otherwise beneath them — would many other filmmakers have drawn Oscar winner Charlize Theron to her reasonably thankless role in Prometheus, or assembled such an A-list ensemble for the bonkers noir The Counselor? Doubtful.
At first, it seems like the constant cutting to Mark’s fellow astronauts and various NASA suits and scientists back on Earth is merely a narrative crutch meant to keep us from getting bored with Damon on Mars. As The Martian goes on, however, it becomes apparent that this is no interplanetary Robinson Crusoe — the real story is not so much Watney’s survival, but the collective spirit of the globe itself, as Watney’s colleagues work to rescue him while scores of strangers anxiously await news of his safe return.
Why we explore. Why we fight to survive. Why we band together to save each other in a crisis. Plenty of films have examined the worst of human nature in precarious predicaments, but The Martian gives us the best — a lot of good people trying their damnedest to do the right thing. The smartest people in the world come together to work the problem; foreign nations lend a helping hand; brave people risk their lives to save one. Late in the film, there are reaction shots of people grouped together all over the world, watching giant TV screens to discover the fate of Mark Watney. These scenes are a little overdone, but it’s hard not to get swept up in the “Yes, we can!” spirit of the whole endeavor.
The Martian is reminiscent of plenty of movies set in space — from Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, and more recently, Gravity and Interstellar. (Matt Damon’s winning turn as Watney is somewhat undermined by the fact that he already played a marooned astronaut in Interstellar — which also co-starred Chastain. Less problematic, but worth noting: he played a lone survivor in need of similar rescue in Saving Private Ryan, too.)
But The Martian, surprisingly enough, has the lightest touch of them all — there’s not a lot of time to gawk at the wonders of space, nor contemplate man’s place in the universe, or anything along those lines. For a film that takes us to another planet, it is decidedly focused on earthly matters like community and human perseverance, plus lots of math and science. The heroes of The Martian are very, very smart people. It’s brains, not brawn, that allows Watney to survive for so long on Mars, and the minds of many scientists that bring him back home. (Here’s a theory: if you averaged the IQ of every speaking character in every movie, The Martian would have the highest.)The Martian is not a true story, obviously, but it does feel like one — Hollywood is fond of making true stories that end in hugs and cheers and happy tears, but it’s rarer to see a crowd-pleaser like this that’s wholly fiction. Though it shares plenty of DNA with other films set in outer space, The Martian fits more squarely in the “one man (or woman) up against the elements” genre, alongside Wild and 127 Hours. Like those films, The Martian‘s smart script by Drew Goddard comes up with an obvious but necessary device to allow Watney to speak to us — he frequently addresses the many cameras left behind on Mars, supposedly to log his thoughts and activities in case he dies, but really as a way of giving us the lowdown on what he’s up to. (At times, the device borders on cloying, as if we’re seeing confessionals from The Real World: Mars, but overall it isn’t a problem.)
The visuals are completely convincing, which is crucial if we’re to buy Watney’s predicament. Scott doesn’t overdo it with the special effects — everything that’s here is in service of the story, and despite the oversized cast, everyone gets a little something memorable to do. No one is expendable. The Martian also has the distinction of being perhaps the first blockbuster in which growing potatoes is a crucial and compelling plot point. Thankfully, the film has no need to complicate its story with anything but the difficulties of rescuing a guy from Mars — its drama is all in believable problem-solving, making no apologies for its inherent nerdiness. In an era when most studio films are being dumbed down to appeal to global audiences, it’s refreshing to find one that celebrates intelligence, both in its characters and in its smart storytelling.
Matt Damon brings the necessary charm and charisma to carry the film, which isn’t too surprising. It’s quite likely he’ll be rewarded with an Oscar nomination. (He’s never won for acting, and been nominated only twice, which feels like less than he should have been. The Academy loves an actor who’s overdue.) Ultimately, The Martian does so many things so well, and nothing much wrong. It’s hard to find much to fault it for, even when the end result is more “very, very good” than truly transcendent. It may or may not be an accurate how-to to survive when stranded on Mars, but it’s certainly a how-to for Hollywood to make big budget movies that appeal to and satisfy everyone. Who’d have guessed? They found signs of intelligent life in mainstream moviemaking.