Superior to both Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and (by a smaller margin) Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, The Martian will disappoint only those who were waiting for Marvin to show up at some point to wreak looney havoc. Perhaps not since Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 has a movie paid such loving tribute to star-struck visionaries and their egghead enablers, those brainiacs who work tirelessly to send them soaring past the heavens and just as feverishly toil to return them safely to the fold.
Matt Damon plays the title character – not a Martian per se, but an Earthling who becomes stranded on the planet after his team mistakenly believes him to have been killed in a freak accident. While his fellow astronauts, a dedicated group led by expedition captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), hurtle back toward Earth – a journey that will take many months – Damon’s Mark Watney calmly assesses his situation and determines that if he can sufficiently secure the man-built outpost on the Mars surface and if he can not only ration his food but also grow some more, he might be able to survive long enough until the next U.S. rocket comes visiting in a couple years time.
Or maybe not even that long, once the NASA suits realize that he’s in fact not dead (as reported by Lewis) and is very much alive. With NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) taking the lead, agency head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) exploring every option, and p.r. rep Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) waiting for instructions on how to handle the media, everyone becomes committed to bringing Mark back home.
Andy Weir’s novel has been adapted for the screen by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, TV’s Alias), and the film’s strength largely derives from the characterization of Mark Watney. As expertly brought to life by Damon, he’s easy to like and even easier to admire, as he employs his sense of humor to take the edge off his dire predicament, thus allowing him to rationally face challenges one step at a time.
Yet despite Damon’s star billing and his face looming large – and alone – on the poster, this is hardly a one-man show like Cast Away (or a one-woman show like Gravity).
Instead, the picture frequently cuts away from Watney, not only to focus on the various earthbound players as they argue, compromise and coordinate but also to check in on Watney’s fellow space travellers and get their take on the situation.
Not surprisingly, everyone comes to the same conclusion: Like Damon’s Private Ryan, Damon’s Mark Watney is worth saving. The Martian, then, represents that other type of inspirational drama, one that moves us not through oversized action but through understated intelligence.