Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s consistently great directors. His many credits include directing a few terrific and landmark science fiction movies. He first terrified us in outer space in 1979’s Alien, and then brought the story to earth in 1983’s Blade Runner. More than thirty years after Blade Runner, Scott proves he still knows how to direct a great space movie with The Martian starring Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist Mark Watney. This 144-minute film is unusually engrossing. If it were a novel it would be a page-turner.
Why is this? It’s because it’s a story of survival that we can all relate to and understand, even if we won’t be going to Mars. It’s also because Scott did a terrific job of casting. Matt Damon of course is a first class actor, but he plays a character that is very likeable and quite interesting. It’s a gritty story of man over nature, with nature in this case being the inhospitable planet Mars. Mars certainly is exotic and generally hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, but it can’t support human life. Cold and without much of an atmosphere, it feels more desolate than the moon, which at least has planet Earth gleaming in its sky.
Watney gets left behind and is presumed dead after a massive sandstorm bears down on the landing site of the Ares III lander. The crew barely has time to get off the planet before the storm can tip over the lander. Watney himself might as well be dead and is “saved” only by being speared by an antenna, which limited the loss of air pressure in his suit. He can barely hobble into the Hab, a small weatherproof home placed on the surface. Watney must struggle to survive despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a food supply that would run out well before another craft from Earth could arrive. Watney though seems reasonably chipper about his whole miserable experience, which is a good way to survive when there is no way to survive. As he says, “fortunately, I’m a botanist”. Using the crew’s excrement, Martian soil that is mostly sand and some raw potatoes from earth, he develops a tent that acts as his farm. He figures out how to use the hydrazine left on the surface to create a water supply for his farm.
It’s just fascinating to follow Watney’s journey. As you might expect there are lots of setbacks, and there are daunting technical challenges like simply letting Mission Control know he is alive. The Ares III crew though is on its way back to Earth, its commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) more than a little upset over Watney’s loss. So is all of the crew, but at least the Ares III is a very attractive spacecraft to dawdle home in. The trip home is a long one but there are nice views out its amazing windows and neatly done effects of living in zero G. The ship’s fare may be a bit pedestrian after a while, but if you have to travel between planets you will want an Ares III.
Equally as interesting as Watney’s fate on Mars is the reaction back on Earth when Mission Control discovers he’s alive. It’s Apollo 13 all over again, except this rescue if it can happen at all will take close to a year rather than a few days. Alas, the Ares III just can’t turn around; celestial mechanics don’t work that way. In fact, Mission Control decides to leave the crew in the dark about Watney. Watney though quickly becomes an unintended world cause. Millions may be starving in Africa but everyone including the Chinese want Watney to make it alive back to Earth and no expense will be spared. It’s just that no matter how they run the numbers no one can quite figure out a way for Watney to survive until a new craft can arrive. Among the many catastrophes is the loss of Watney’s farm after an initial success.
So the suspense is equally as much back on Earth as it is on Mars. Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA. Presumably the government is no longer overrun with Republicans because the space program seems to be flush again. Even Mission Control looks great, which is in contrast to the real Mission Control today with tiles missing from its ceiling. The Ares III crew is mostly Wonder Bread, but the NASA scientists working on this problem are at least diverse. Sean Bean plays Mitch Henderson, the flight director who soon rubs Director Sanders the wrong way. At least NASA gets to do what it does best again, which is to show amazing creativity and resourcefulness. There are some terrific smaller parts in this movie back at Mission Control, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Mars Mission Director and Donald Glover as astronomer Rich Purnell. Combine the terrific acting with great special effects and the movie becomes wholly engrossing. Screen time just flies by.
A number of academics have taken issue with some of the science. I found a few things myself, including the shielding issue that is not mentioned but which I once posted about. But this is science fiction and we can give the director some license because it sure feels real enough. In the man vs. nature movie, this one plumbs new territory and leaves you on the edge of your seat through most of it. All of this is done without any terrifying aliens coming out of the ventilation system. It turns out that a plausible suspense movie is much more gripping than the implausible kind.
Sure, bring the popcorn but you may find yourself too engrossed to enjoy it. This is a really terrific movie and oddly timed. This sort of movie would normally be summer fare.
3.5 out of 4-points.