Buckle up, boys and girls: science is sexy again.
Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Donald Glover and Jeff Daniels star in Ridley Scott’s latest star-studded space adventure, “The Martian,” and they deliver in a stunning fashion. Damon’s character, botanist Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars, believed dead by his crew and left to survive with only the materials and equipment left behind in a hurried evacuation. It’s “Castaway” in space, only the island is 13 light-minutes and a year of space travel away from planet Earth.
The plot follows three stories: the story of Mark Watney, the story of an astronaut crew who believes they left their friend and partner to die, and the story of humanity, collecting and joining forces to save one of its own.
The movie is visually stunning. Scott delivers yet again, using 3-D to its maximum potential. There are no cheesy rocks flying into your face here. Rather, the use of 3-D adds a sense of space, plunging the viewer into the cramped, efficient NASA rovers, the vast, dusty fields of Mars and the terrifying grittiness of Martian storms. 3-D cameras’ ability to add depth to the visual experience makes it easy to feel the negative space inherent to both the Martian wasteland and the emptiness of space. The single caveat is that the framing device for much of the story is head-on video logs of Watney’s diary; this feels like it should get stale visually, but Damon’s charismatic acting carries these portions without a hitch.
These video logs also showcase the most fun part of the movie — the creative problem-solving Watney goes through in his desperate attempt to survive. It is massively satisfying to watch Watney, as he puts it, “science the shit out of this.” Watching Watney struggle is refreshing; rather than a story of good versus evil, or of ideologies struggling against each other, we get a story of man versus nature. Watney’s failures are entirely his own, and his triumphs are against the unfeeling, unloving world of Mars.
However, this is not just a spaceman survival story. It’s a story of teamwork, of human ingenuity and loyalty, and one that might as well be an advertisement for NASA; as far as I’m concerned, I’m about ready to send in an application myself. There is heavy reminiscence of “Apollo 13.” Both movies manage to capture the core drive of space agencies — a nobility of purpose, a desire to learn and discover that transcends national, racial and ideological boundaries. This is another strength of the movie — as in the real world of science, competent individuals come from all races and countries, with an Asian in a noncomedic role, an Indian man in a leadership position and a black scientist explaining things who is not Morgan Freeman.
Based on Andy Weir’s hilarious, best-selling novel, which was originally published as a serial on the internet, the film translates the humor into an onscreen format. Damon’s timing as a witty, well-spoken botanist is vaguely reminiscent of Will Hunting from “Good Will Hunting,” but in a way that is absolutely good-hearted and likeable. Watney cracks jokes constantly, with a relentless optimism that engages the audience personally (the video-logs were addressed to humanity, which includes us). And that humor is absolutely necessary, interspersed as it is between moments of pure desolation in the face of absolute failure, on both the Martian and terrestrial sides. Damon’s range in this role shines, and the repeating cycle of hope, failure and resolute determination is impossible to look away from.
Ultimately, this sci-fi movie does something that I think is rare in this modern cinema age of gritty superhero films. Scott has created a tale of hope, of sincere faith in the human race to unite, to innovate and to be good. This was a movie with no villains; every person onscreen was indefatigable in his pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. Scott’s movie and Damon’s character reach across the screen to stir something within us. “The Martian” had excellent performances, an indelible script and stunning visuals, but you should really see this movie to feel some pride for our happy little planet.