THE MARTIAN (2015)
Directed by Ridley Scott
20th Century Fox, 141 minutes, PG-13 (language)
* * * *
When it comes to recreating futuristic landscapes, few directors can match the visual style of Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus). He's done it again in The Martian, which presents the red planet as you might have imagined it: red sand, imposing bluffs, pocked craters, dust storms, and flying debris. Okay, Scott gets some of the details wrong—the distant sun would probably cast a blue tint rather than full spectrum light, for instance—but after all, he did shoot in Jordan, not the fourth rock from the sun.
The Martian is the film version of Andy Weir's eponymous novel and it's probably as good an adaptation as is possible for a Hollywood film. Fans of the novel know that science was discussed in great detail on the printed page; on the screen we hear lots of references to science and observe people doing lots of fancy things, but let's just say you won't need a degree in astrophysics to follow any of it. Like most Hollywood movies, The Martian opts for drama over intellectual musing. The time frame is sometime in the 2030s, and the seven-member ground team of Ares III mission is collecting samples, when a sudden violent storm forces them back to their capsule to make an emergency launch before powerful winds topple their vessel. As they hasten back, a broken communications antenna impales botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), depressurizes his suit, and kills him. Or so his comrades think when they reluctantly leave him behind. Actually, the broken end of an anchoring clip and Watney's own congealed blood sealed his suit breech and he revives to find himself marooned on the red planet. Task one is to do self-surgery and dress his wound. Task two is to figure out how to survive until Ares IV lands four years hence.
The Martian is essentially Robison Crusoe with no Friday as companion. All Watney has to do is figure out how to create enough water and oxygen to survive and then grow food on a planet whose temperature varies from -80 to -200 degrees Fahrenheit and has no soil. (His solution is unique, gross, and possible.) Did I mention that the Ares IV site is several thousand kilometers away and that his land rover has a 15 mph top speed and that he has to charge batteries every few hours? Or that his bio-habitat is made of Mylar? Watney must, as he puts it, "do the science" for every problem thrown his way and bet his life that his calculations are correct, that he makes no careless mistakes, and that he avoids debilitating accidents. Plus, he has to let Earth know that he is alive, something discovered for him by observant NASA monitor Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). But how to speak to Earth when it was the destruction of the communications array that impaled him? Science (and conveniently discarded material) to the rescue!
Most of the film is a rush against time, with Martian and earthly complications. As NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), reminds, NASA is about politics as much as science or morality. This, of course, pits him against those who are all about morality, including project director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejofor). Then there is the simple matter of whether a resupply rocket can be built in time, a question raised by payload specialist Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). Should Watney's crew even be told that he survived? Could they even attempt a rescue that would add over a year to their mission and might mean no one could get home? (There's a nice role for Donald Glover as math whiz Rich Pernell that deals with this question.)
At heart The Martian is a standard Hollywood race-against-the-clock flick, but it's a good one—not a great one, but a cut above the usual fare. Damon delivers a solid performance as Mark Watney, even though his part is underwritten. We see the steely determination and the humor that sustained him during his lonely vigil. Weir's novel also delved into the loneliness and despair of an individual stranded in a situation in which death was much more likely than rescue. We don't get very much of that in the film, but that's a script issue, not a failing on Damon's part. If you've been avoiding this film because you thought it might creep you out, rest assured that most of it plays to the Hollywood trope of triumph-against-all-odds. There's plenty of tension, though, and Ridley Scott builds it well and shows it in spectacular form. The best way to enjoy The Martian is to suspend disbelief, ignore the hyperbolic PR surrounding it, and just let it be escapist fare. It's not Tarkovsky's Solaris, but there's no reason why it has to be. Call it a summer film that just happened to have a fall release.
Postscript: If we ever need to send an actor into space, Matt Damon might be our go-to guy. He was also lost in space in Interstellar (2011), traveled off world in Elysium (2013), and appeared in a short film of what it would be like to be on the moon. Guess it gives no meaning to the phrase, "You go, Matt!"