In a plausible near future, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of the research mission ARES III, part of a five-mission effort to explore Mars. But Mars is a hostile planet and when a massive sandstorm blows up with just a few minutes warning, the entire crew scrambles into the MAV, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, desperate to take off and rendezvous with the orbiting station a few hundred miles above the planet. The short journey from the explorer’s habitat to the MAV is fraught with danger as the storm increases in ferocity and in the blink of an eye an antenna is torn from its mount and slams into Watney, shoving him into the darkness and destroying his suit electronics.
Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) can’t wait to rescue him with the storm threatening to topple the MAV, and with a crushing sense of defeat, she commands that the ship take off, abandoning Watney’s presumably lifeless body to the Martian surface.
But Watney isn’t dead. He’s been left on an unfriendly planet with no communications gear and with barely enough life support gear and food to last a few months. Except it’s going to be years before NASA can get another mission to Mars to rescue him. How can he hold on?
That’s the compelling central theme of The Martian: NASA Botanist Watney has nothing but his own ingenuity and the junk left from the ARES mission to keep himself alive until he can, eventually, be rescued. It’s the ultimate “survivor”, Robinson Crusoe for the 21st Century.
And it’s a splendid film, far more amusing than expected, and gripping in its sparse but effective narrative.
In an era of science fiction films being alarmingly light on science, it’s also a wonderful tale of scientific adventure, the real revenge of the nerds. As Watney says early in his stay on Mars, the only way he’s going to be able to survive is the “science the f– out of it.” and we’re immediately rooting for him as he invents solutions to the problems he confronts and overcomes the failures that keep occuring.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA satellite photo analyst Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notices an aberration and after bringing it to the attention of her supervisor, Vincent Kapoor (a splendid Chiwetel Ejiofor), they realize that Watney isn’t dead. But NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has a dilemma when he learns the truth: do they share the news with the world if there’s a much greater chance of him dying before they can rescue him? More to the point, Lewis and her ARES III crew of Martinez (Michael Peña), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and Beck (Sebastian Stan) are traveling back to Earth under the shadow of Watney’s death: Does Sanders tell them he’s alive? Ares Mission Commander Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) certainly thinks so.
The book by Andy Weir was a surprise hit and excellent read, fast-paced, meaty and thoughtful, with a surprising amount of humor. That humor has been retained in a very faithful translation of the book to the big screen by experienced director Ridley Scott. There’s plenty of tech, splendid visual effects (the ARES III ship heading back to Earth from Mars is particularly stunning) and a solid cast. Matt Damon is perfectly cast as the wry, snarky, brilliant Watney too, delivering a performance perfectly consistent with what I envisioned he’d be like when I read the book almost two years ago.
The tale of The Martian is also a mythic, satisfying hero’s journey of a man facing the elements and having to rely on his wits and ingenuity to survive. It’s one heck of a tale and it’s a really great movie, incredibly entertaining, funny as heck at many points, and exciting.
Go see it. You’ll love it!