Space is cold, dark, and unfeeling — or at least that's what we've been led to believe by space disaster movies. As seen most recently in Gravity and Interstellar, space is an endless stretch of deep, obsidian black that contains so much everything that just thinking about it can cause headaches. It swallows up the curious and adventurous and spits them out without remorse. Space is exhilarating, mystifying, and ultimately terrifying.
The Martian throws all of that out the window with a wink and a mischievous grin.
Where Ridley Scott's seminal Alien promised a desolate and fraught space future, his new film, The Martian, finds a defiant joy in the unknown. Once astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) realizes his crew has left him for dead on Mars, he and the film keep their focus, momentum, and even a sharp sense of humor by sticking to the mission.
In the face of incredible odds, astronaut Mark Watney is an endlessly charming — and very funny — protagonist
We first meet Watney cracking wise on the surface of Mars with the rest of the Ares 3 crew (Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Michael Peña). If they weren't loping around in spacesuits, they could be any group of co-workers shooting the shit.
This easy, casual introduction makes it even more jarring when a sudden and terrible storm interrupts their work, forcing Commander Melissa Lewis (a steely-jawed Jessica Chastain) to make the tough call to make an emergency departure — leaving Watney behind when he gets hit by a rogue piece of equipment and disappears into the debris. Devastated but determined, her crew reassures her that she did the right thing. There's no chance Watney could have survived.
And when Watney wakes up in a dune, stunned and injured, he knows they were right.
At this point, The Martian could become any number of grim, white-knuckle-tense space disaster movies, focusing on Watney's isolation and rising panic. Instead, The Martian does something much more unexpected.
It embraces comedy.
As adapted from Andy Weir's novel by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian presents Watney as a fairly cocky, genuinely funny, easygoing everyman who just happens to be the only living thing on this entire planet.
Watney rarely shares the frame with another human being, which seems like the bleakest possible scenario. But both Damon and Goddard rise to the challenge with gusto and wit, keeping Watney's personality intact as he sets his laser focus and intellect on the problem at hand.
He keeps meticulous video logs of his thought processes and progress on the main computer and various cameras set up throughout base camp. Like any good vlogger, Watney is just as entertaining as he is informative. After laying out how long his food supply can last, the sheer time it would take for another mission to get to him, and the fact that he has no existing communicative pathway to NASA anymore, he sits back in his chair, brow furrowed.
Then he shrugs, smirking at himself and the camera in equal measure, and says, "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."
The line has already been quoted often, and for good reason. It perfectly sums up Watney, his approach to a seemingly impossible situation, and how The Martian rejects typical disaster narratives, blindsiding its audience with strategically deployed jokes instead of narrative twists or interfering aliens. If Damon manages to get into the awards fray for this role — and he should — it will be thanks to the fact that he makes it easy to understand how a desperate man could still find a way to laugh.
The Martian's saturated space frontier is far from cinema's usual blank spaces
Even apart from its tonal differences, The Martian just looks different. While space is often depicted as flat and dark, brushed in chilly shades of steel gray, The Martian luxuriates in the reds, oranges, and flat white light of Martian deserts. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean, Prometheus) lets the planet glow with amber light, pulsing with some foreign energy, stretching and sloping away from Watney as far as he can see. Even the light-years of stars surrounding Ares 3 as it floats back toward Earth seem less overwhelming than they do inviting, twinkling as crew members float around the ship.
It's certainly a sharp contrast to Scott's other space ventures — the dystopic cities of Blade Runner, the stark spaceship and dark shadows of Alien. In fact, the closest ancestor to The Martian's dusty landscapes might just be George Lucas's Tatooine.
This warmth radiates throughout the film, whether in the ochre sands of Mars, Watney's dimpled smile, or the earnest attempts from his friends and colleagues to get him home.
The people stuck on Earth are just as interesting as those stuck in space
By the time a NASA satellite technician (Mackenzie Davis) realizes that Mark is still alive, NASA has already done the somewhat humiliating song and dance of staging an elaborate funeral and tribute for their fallen astronaut. But Watney's movement over Mars's surface kicks off the rescue attempt in earnest.
The charge is led by Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who earnestly but firmly insists on Watney's rescue no matter the cost. He finds allies in Ares 3's flight director (a gruff Sean Bean) and Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), an exasperated but affable engineer. Kristen Wiig tags in as PR damage control, while Jeff Daniels channels all his Newsroom bluster as Teddy Sanders, NASA's pragmatic director. They're a diverse crew, both physically and intellectually. Ejiofor and Wong are especially good as they put their considerable brains together to anticipate Watney's moves, circumvent legal loopholes, and bring their guy home.
While NASA's control room is the sleek stuff that sci-fi dreams are made of, the employees, again, just feel like real people. They eat in dingy cafeterias, worry about inter-office politics, drink watery coffee. When we meet wünderkind astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), he's practically buried underneath a mountain of dorm-room banalities — mismatched blankets, coffee filters, crushed energy drink cans. These are real people, solving a surreal problem.
The film could have gotten away with pouring all of its creative energy into Watney's characterization, but instead, Goddard and Scott manage to make the action on Earth just as compelling as Watney's survival on Mars.
The film doesn't shy away from the maddeningly tiny details, bureaucratic loopholes, and human variables that would inevitably play a part in something so complicated as sending a rescue mission to Mars. But Goddard's script and Scott's direction zip merrily along, as if they don't realize this could be an exceedingly boring setup in lesser hands.
More and more talent joins the effort, contributing their own particular set of skills to come to a solution. Up on Mars, Watney uses his knowledge as both a NASA astronaut and a brilliant botanist to keep himself alive. Even the Ares 3 crew, floating back toward Earth, gets to contribute their considerable knowledge to the cause. The process of getting Mark home is so compelling, in fact, that a high-octane rescue attempt in the third act is almost a letdown.
What in reality is just a series of math problems and red tape quickly becomes an ensemble caper. Watching the best and brightest minds in NASA race against time, resources, and incredible odds is truly exhilarating — Ocean's Eleven for problem-solving nerds.
The Martian's greatest asset is that it remains relentlessly, hopefully human
If The Martian were just Cast Away on Mars, following Watney's dogged attempts to make something out of nothing, it still could have been good. But The Martian is great because it never prioritizes the mission above its characters. We know exactly who Watney, Commander Lewis, and Vincent Kapoor are within seconds of meeting them, thanks to a well-placed quip or steely glance. We know why they're fighting so hard to solve this problem. Their passion is palpable, whether they're huddling together in a conference room or brainstorming at a screen while a storm beats at the tenuous walls.
If, as Alien put it, no one can hear you scream in space, they also can't hear you laugh, or cry, or scoff, or curse. People are more than just their mission statements. The Martian understands that in a fierce and joyful way, even as it follows a man bounding through the Martian desert, utterly alone.