It’s official – science is cool again. Yes, even science in outer space.
In “The Martian,” based on the book by Andy Weir, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars when his crew, believing him dead after a storm, sets course for home without him. Knowing the timetable for his rescue would force him to exhaust all of the resources necessary for his survival, Watney must “science the **** out of this” in order to live long enough that he might ever come home.
“The Martian” is built on a series of problem-solving scenarios for Watney and the others rescuing him, including the people at NASA and his crewmates from the Mars mission. The entertainment value comes not from intense drama or the usual theatrical conflict or thrills that come from science fiction, but from writer Drew Goddard’s (“World War Z,” Netflix’s “Daredevil”) plot structure of presenting the audience with an obstacle to Watney’s survival or rescue followed by the clever way in which he or others maneuver around it.
In other words, this is not the type of outer space move you’d expect from Ridley Scott of “Alien” and “Blade Runner” fame. “The Martian” hardly necessitates the guidance of such a veteran auteur, yet many might argue it’s Scott’s most entertaining film in a decade, and without question his most universally appealing effort in that time. It’s the kind of movie that 10-15 years ago you would’ve expected to see Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg direct starring Tom Hanks – a character-driven survival story.
As such, “The Martian” does not warrant much comparison with recent outer space blockbusters, i.e. “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” These films are philosophically driven and perhaps even arrogantly intellectual; “Martian” is more blue-collar – its biggest “idea” is that with a lot of hard work, a never-give-up attitude and plenty scientific knowledge, you can do just about anything.
“The Martian” doesn’t need to be “deep” either. Damon adds depth with his performance, giving Watney real personality that’s both entertaining and humanizing to his character. Considering the movie contrives a video blog for Watney in order to provide explanation of what he’s thinking and doing, it takes someone of skill to turn these expository scenes into character moments. He provides both the humor and the emotion in this film, countering the annoying bickering NASA officials and scientists (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig). The other talented costars, including Jessica Chastain, Kata Mara and Michael Peña are hardly necessary but definitely nice to watch.
Would the science in the film pass the Neil deGrasse Tyson test? Probably not, but I’ll let others search for that article. For most people, maybe even the true science nerds who know better, “The Martian” will be fun escapism at the movies.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (book)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels