By Nick Anstett
This is a special sort of film that receives lengthy accolades from physicists on Twitter. Whether it be “Interstellar,” “Gravity,” or now “The Martian,” the film world is slowly in the process of birthing a new form of hard science-fiction. Ridley Scott, who made waves in genre film in the ‘70s and ‘80s with classics such as “Alien” and “Blade Runner,” adapts the critically adored Andy Weir novel of the same name with dedication, passion, and gusto. The result is a breathtaking experience that is not only one of the best science fiction films of the decade thus far but also one of the best movies of the year.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on one of the first manned missions to Mars. When an unexpected, deadly wind storm threatens the Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) calls for an impromptu evacuation of the base. In the process, Watney is struck by debris and his crew is forced to leave him for dead or risk the potential loss of their own lives. Watney awakes a day later to find himself bleeding to death and alone on a desolate planet. Resolving not to die alone on Mars, he hatches a desperate plan to not only survive the world’s harsh conditions but also find a way home.
There is a certain wonder to watching “The Martian.” While the visual grandeur in its near photorealistic renderings of space and alien worlds likely goes without saying, what makes Scott’s film so utterly enthralling is the celebration of human ingenuity and resolve at its center. It views as if Jules Verne and Jack London sat down together and plotted out a speculative but, at the same time, grounded thriller. While last year’s “Interstellar” only half committed to the fidelity of scientific principle, “The Martian” practically makes it its mission statement. Because “The Martian” holds itself so stringently to this central principal, it prevents the pervasive technobabble of botany, astrophysics, engineering, etc. from feeling overwhelming. The plausibility makes the achievement of its human characters feel all the more engaging and even uplifting, but it also works in the inverse adding tension to their potential failings. There’s a certain level of trickery and awe involved that enhances moments of nail biting tension. The result is Scott’s best film since his decades old classics, easily out pacing his lesser recent fair such as “Robin Hood,” “Prometheus,” or even “Gladiator.”
Damon stands impressively in the center of it all. Considering the fact that he spends close to 90 percent of the film alone, much of “The Martian’s” narrative heft is placed on his shoulders, and he carries it beautifully. He brings a disarming level of humor and good natured heart to a role that could have otherwise been drenched in despair. It succeeds in that we care heavily for Wattney’s future, and Damon sells every one of his victories and failings with equal steps of excitement and heartbreak.
While Damon may walk away with the most credit and recognition, he makes up a sliver of a hefty ensemble that includes the likes of Chastain, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sebastian Stan, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofer, and Aksel Hennie. The result is a film that boasts an impressive star power without ever reveling in it. It also helps that we see actors like Wiig playing roles outside their usual repetoire. It adds to the naturalism of the film itself even if their presence should hint towards artifice.
“The Martian” impresses with every booted step across its desolate landscape, with every tear and bead of sweat of frustration, and every moment of eureka-like exultation. The result is something that is not only narratively and emotionally arresting but inspiring in its ingenuity and faith in the human spirit. It is a movie remarkably untouched by cynicism without the dangers of feeling too earnest. It may become overlooked as it fumbles its way into an already crowded awards season, but it should (and seems poised to) endure for years to come.