Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: Matt Damon plays an astronaut who’s stranded alone on an inhospitable planet, and he’s willing to do just about anything to beat the odds and get back home to Earth.
OK, put your hand down, because The Martian isn’t Interstellar. It’s better than that. In Christopher Nolan’s picture, Damon portrayed a murderous character who embodied man’s worst instincts, heavy-handedly named “Mann.” Now, in Ridley Scott’s triumphant and realistically science-minded ode to the human spirit, the charming actor plays the much more normal-sounding (and normal-acting) Mark Watney, the lowest-ranking member of a six-person expedition to Mars.
The film opens with a scene that quickly and vividly enacts the setup that’s only alluded to in Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel, a humorous page-turner that’s been splendidly adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard, cowriter and director of 2012’s rather smart, funny horror hybrid The Cabin in the Woods. Goddard’s humor remains intact in this script—which isn’t to say there’s not also a touch of horror.
Back to that opening scene: The six-person crew of the Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, is only a few days into their two-month stay when a massive sandstorm kicks up. Cmdr. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, another holdover from Interstellar), fearing that their Mars Descent Vehicle could be in danger, orders her disappointed crew to abort their mission and return to the safety of the Hermes, the space-faring vessel that transported them from Earth to Mars. As the six don their environmental suits, making the short trek from the habitat to the MDV for evacuation, Mark is struck by debris and hurled through the low-visibility air. He’s been impaled in the abdomen by an antenna, which has also destroyed his suit’s bio-monitor, causing the rest of his crewmates—Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie)—to presume he’s dead. As the MDV rockets them back to the orbiting Hermes, Scott and ace cinematographer Dariusz Wolski focus their 3-D cameras on Mark’s empty chair in the cabin.
Unbeknownst to the grief-stricken crew and those back at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston—mission director Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis), Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean, who keeps his composure during a very funny Lord of the Rings gag) and head honcho Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels in no-nonsense Newsroom mode)—Mark is still alive…and a bit of a MacGyver. Right off the bat, he demonstrates his resourcefulness under pressure, treating and suturing his life-threatening puncture wound.
Mark determines that it will take four years for a rescue mission to reach him—after they realize he’s still alive. And even if he rations it, the food supply will only last a year. “Luckily, I’m a botanist,” Mark says during one of his many video log entries, a device that nicely nods to the journal entries of Robinson Crusoe and allows him to effectively address the audience directly through much of the film. “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” Mark tells us. Damon delivers the lines with a can-do attitude and a twinkle in his eye, and we believe in him as he concludes, “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” Which he does, burning hydrazine fuel to create water and using his own waste as mulch for potato farming.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA notices activity at the habitat, and soon the efforts to keep Mark alive are being coordinated on the homefront, too. Not that there aren’t setbacks. Nearly anything that can go wrong does, but rather than play things for suspense, as Alfonso Cuarón did in 2013’s Oscar-winning Gravity, Scott presents his picture as a paean to the enduring spirit of man’s ingenuity against overwhelming odds.
The 77-year-old director, who already has two science-fiction classics on his resume (1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner), makes it all look easy, and he’s aided by almost all of the same crew from his last sci-fi film (2012’s Alien prequel, Prometheus), who improve upon much of what they learned on that compulsively watchable mess here. There is one notable addition: Harry Gregson-Williams, who does commendable work on the film’s score. Rather than composing suspenseful musical cues, he underlines the ingenuity on display from all quarters with a documentary-style approach.
Still, as terrific as his music is, it’s Scott’s perfect choice of pop song for the closing credits that will leave you smiling as you exit the theater: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
The Martian ****
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Jeff Daniels. Written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir. Directed by Ridley Scott. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.