I“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” says Mark Watney, engagingly played by Matt Damon. Watney is an astronaut who has been marooned on Mars, and keeps a video diary that serves as the narration of the film. Since Mars is not a place that has shuttle service, nothing grows there (despite the recent discovery of water), he does not have enough provisions to last him long enough for a rescue mission, and he has no communications with Earth, he will indeed have to science the shit out of it, and he does.
This is The Martian, an endlessly rousing entertainment that relies upon, besides Damon’s performance, the spectrum of science, from botany to astrophysics. As the movie unfolded, I found it to be a direct rebuke to the perniciously anti-science element of right-wing politicians (which are almost all of them) and began to look for any element of religion. There is one, when NASA bigwigs Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean share a moment and ask each other if they believe in God. But this line seems inserted just so it can be said this isn’t a completely secular film. It is.
The film begins with a crew of six, led by hard-as-nails Jessica Chastain (she’s softened by a love of disco music). They are forced to abort their mission by a dust storm, and during their flight to the ship Damon is carried away by a flying satellite dish. Assuming he is dead, the remaining five take off for a very long return to Earth.
But Damon is not dead, just wounded. But the satellite dish was the way to talk to home. Over the next two hours plus Damon and the crew on Earth and on the Hermes (the ship taking his crew home) will use their noggins to get past obstacles to bring him home. I’ve seen some articles talk about the humanity of this film–it is true that human beings can bond together even if to save one man, and a shot at the end of the film has the world breathlessly watching live–and in certain case that’s true. But even overriding that is The Martian‘s celebration of intelligence. You can pray all you want, but it takes an advanced degree in math to get the job done.
Damon, who has curiously played this kind of role before, in Saving Private Ryan and Interstellar, makes a great hero. He’s a botanist, so he figures out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil (with the help of his own feces) and makes water from scratch. He then figures out how to communicate with Earth by finding the old Pathfinder from the 1990s (the film takes place in what I would term the near future). The crew on the ground, led by Jeff Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, and a bemused Kristen Wiig as PR director, stand in offices and bark orders to eggheads working on the problem, while Donald Glover figures out a way for the Hermes to actually use the Earth’s gravity as a slingshot to take them back to Mars and rescue Damon (this also enables stars Chastain and Kate Mara to continue to have a reason to be in the movie).
Even though The Martian is by the book filmmaking (director Ridley Scott is not exactly an innovator) it’s a lot of fun. The script by Drew Goddard is both scientifically dense and very funny, as Damon’s character finds a lot of gallows humor in his situation. Some of the sequences are a little too pat, such as when Daniels says, “If nothing goes wrong,” and then, cut to Mars, something goes spectacularly wrong. The falling action of the film is an seemingly endless series of problems to be overcome. But even though anyone who has ever seen a movie knows how this will turn out, it’s still very suspenseful.
I should add that the cast is a gloriously diverse one, with every race represented. Michael Pena plays the mission pilot, which reminds me of something I read about Salma Hayek, who was up for a role as an astronaut once when she was told by a myopic studio executive that “there are no Mexican astronauts.” Brains know no color.
I should also add that the film makes great use of its soundtrack. Per Chastain, there’s plenty of disco, but also a perfect use of David Bowie’s “Starman.” Over the film’s closing credits is “Love Train.” The film may be set in the future, but it’s heart is in the ’70s.