It’s an irresistible premise: an astronaut is mistakenly thought dead and left behind on Mars, where he must learn how to survive in the hostile environment until he can be rescued. On Earth, the world’s top minds must coordinate a mission to get him back as soon as possible.
How does one survive for years in the barren wasteland of Mars, with only enough food to last a few months?
“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) tells us via a video journal he records to handle the film’s exposition (there’s no Wilson for this castaway).
Thankfully, he’s a botanist who knows exactly what he needs to do to survive. There’s fertile soil on the planet’s surface, equipment to construct a makeshift greenhouse, some frozen potatoes that were being saved for Thanksgiving, and plenty of human excrement to use as fertilizer.
To their great credit, in scenes like this and throughout the rest of the film, the filmmakers behind The Martian science the shit out of the film.
Such great care is taken to set up and explain the ideas contained here that we are always aware of the situation and all of its variables: onscreen tension is not generated by a battle between good and evil (there are no bad guys here) but by timescales, mathematical formulae, and basic aerodynamics.
We know, for instance, that Damon’s astronaut has enough food to last him X days, and that a rescue mission will take Y days, and both sides are going to have to work to get those numbers to result in his survival.
And we’re given a great explanation of how NASA is able to track his movements, and how he’s able to resurrect a probe and get messages to them using still photographs, and how their communication improves after that.
And on Earth, every factor in the situation is given a well-rounded voice: NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) needs to worry about future financing, public relations officer Annie Montrose (Kristin Wiig) is concerned with media perception, and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) does everything he can to cut down that Y variable and get an operation in play as soon as possible.
On their way back to their home planet, meanwhile, Watney’s team members – played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie – are kept in the dark about Watney’s survival so they can focus on getting home safely (though you’d think, even in space, they’d catch wind of it somehow). At NASA, Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) fights to do what’s right by them.
The Martian has a great cast, and a great cast of characters (also featured: scientists played by Donald Glover and Benedict Wong), and every angle here is carefully explained and understood. That level of care, however, results in a simple narrative stretched out over nearly 2.5 hours; while the film is never boring, after the premise is established ten minutes in there are few surprises the rest of the way.
Director Ridley Scott presents The Martian in (surprisingly) workmanlike manner, without the great visual innovation he’s displayed in previous films, or was displayed last year in Interstellar or in the previous year by Gravity. Scott’s best at working with more pessimistic material (Alien, Blade Runner, or the criminally underrated The Counselor) and his handling of the feel-good narrative here, adapted by Drew Goddard from the novel by Andy Weir, is vaguely underwhelming.
But we’re blessed to have had such great sci-fi in the mainstream the past three years, and while The Martian may be the least innovative of these films it is the most realistic, presented with the most care and attention to detail (with full NASA cooperation, and presumably, approval).
Fifty years ago, Byron Haskin’s lesser-seen classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars took this very same premise but ended up in a radically different place. It’s fascinating to see how technical innovation and our knowledge of the universe over that timespan has led to what once was presented as pure science fiction now told as an entirely realistic drama.
Give it another fifty years. This premise might soon become historical fiction.