The Martian is such a strangle conflagration of factors that are so rarely seen coming out of Hollywood these days it’s kind of a marvel it was made at all, let alone that it’s as excellent as it is. The story is based on a book series of the same name that was released incrementally on Amazon. The Martian book was framed as sort of non-fiction science fiction, attempting to take the very junky pulp sci-fi plot line of a lone astronaut trapped on an alien planet and work out how it would play out within the realms of actual physics and mathematics. Most of that has transferred over to the final film, though there’s a thorough amount of hand-waving on display to keep the plot moving.
This leaves the end product somewhere between Gravity’s super technical thrill ride and Interstellar’s more hypothetical structuring holding up the majesty and wonder of space. In all honesty, despite the obvious parallels to The Martian doesn’t have that much in common with the 2 previous hard space blockbusters, mainly because it’s infinitely better. In a lot of ways The Martian only serves to make its predecessors look worse in comparison as it becomes increasingly clear we only cut those films as much slack as we did due to lack of choice rather than actual quality.
The hard space film The Martian has infinitely more in common with is The Right Stuff, the docu-drama about the founding of the American space program and its ties to the cold war. A lot of this stems from the split focus of the story. While the bulk of the film follows Matt Damon’s isolated adventures on the red planet we also periodically cut back to Earth to observe the machinery of discovering Damon is alive and mounting a rescue mission. As fun as seeing Damon play around as a weird cross between The Doctor and MacGyver by way of a classic pulp spaceman is the Earth sequences are actually even more compelling. This is the point where the movie dives most heavily into The Right Stuff territory with a major emphasis on the PR tight rope act the NASA officials have to walk between swaying public support and adhering to transparency.
There’s also a lot of great tension raised by the various interagency work and bureaucracy over the actual logistics of mounting a rocket to Mars on exactly 0 notice. Supporting cast like the great Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean absolute crush their respective roles as the various NASA heads and Benedict Wong absolutely crushes his role as the exasperated engineer but the real star here is Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA. Daniels is undergoing a pretty great career period right now and he brings his A-game here in a role that easily could’ve consumed him. We’ve seen this type of character before, the guy at the top trying to balance the ideals of the organization with a compelling sense of pragmatism, sort of like AD Skinner from the X-Files or Bob Kelso from Scrubs, only more substantial and serious than either of those two parts.
None of this is to take away of Damon’s excellent central performance. Damon’s star has been tarnished in recent years but watching him here any doubts you may have of his ability fade from your mind almost immediately. Damon manages the perfect balance of cocky self-assurance and genuine humanity to make his impossibly competent astronaut hero seem grounded and human while also sneaking in a good amount of wish-fulfillment around the edges. As mentioned there’s a lot about his character that feels like a deliberately retro-throwback to the days of soft sci-fi pulp action only instead of two fists and a ray gun Damon has scientific literacy and a Mars rover. A lot of this is owed to the excellence of 2015 MVP Drew Goddard’s script as Damon’s character is very well realized in the text, affording him the chance to simply embody a character which he does very well.
While Damon comes out of the film looking like his old self, Ridley Scott is basically resurrected by his work on this film. This is the first movie he’s made since American Gangster to be legitimately great and it’s a return to form that’s long overdue. While his direction is solid and his eye for visual iconography remains as stable as ever his greatest stroke of genius on The Martian is a split camera perspective during the Damon sequences on Mars. To explain who Damon is talking to on the empty base the movie sets up the idea he’s creating a video log of his experiences so sometimes when we see him we’re seeing actual video footage from the base and other times it’s just the film’s lens. This allows the movie to split Damon’s identity in a very telling way, when he’s making his personal log or conversing with NASA he’s always cocky, brash, and enjoyably glib but when he’s left thoroughly alone at points his unflappable visage is allowed to fall away and expose the man at the center. It’s a great technique that manages to balance the idea the fantasy of the impossible astronaut with the reality of the fragile man in a good way.
There are of course some flaws in the film. There’s a time jump near the end of the film that can’t help but feel awkward as it follows up two fairly large montages and most of Damon’s crew feel decidedly underdeveloped. They’re played by solid actors like Michael Pena and Jessica Chastain but there’s no getting around the fact they end up feeling very perfunctory. It’s also a shame the movie couldn’t find more for Kristen Wiig’s NASA spokesperson to do and Donald Glover’s astronomer character seems to appear out of nowhere at the start of the third act and then disappear just as suddenly. Still, those are minor nitpicks at best and hardly break the movie.
The best way to describe The Martian is that it’s 2015’s Avengers: an incredibly nerdy concept transposed to the big screen with incredible fidelity and buoyed most of all by its tremendous sense of optimism. That optimism, incidentally, is the main thing that makes this such an incredibly, infectiously enjoyable take on hard sci-fi space travel and why it’s a more enjoyable film than the two precursors mentioned earlier. There’s none of Gravity’s stark pessimism towards space or Interstellar’s cynical vision of the future, that’s not what The Martian’s about. The Martian’s about how science and reason can overcome even the most extreme circumstances, how human ingenuity and cooperation overcomes our petty differences and limitations, most of all it’s about looking up with a sense of confidence and wonder and most of all hope, all of which have been in far too short supply this year.