Sci-fi fans might feel a frisson at the end of The Martian when the credit “Directed by Ridley Scott” fades in over a shot of space. It evokes the same credit over a shot of space in Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien — a cold, cynical, icky film, still a prime specimen of the subgenre known as “body horror.” The Martian is so not that. It flips Alien on its polar axis: In this space, everyone can hear you scream. The whole world, in fact, is watching and rooting for space botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), left for dead on the red planet and now tasked with keeping himself from starving before NASA can send fresh vittles and/or bring him home. Mark is an amazingly resourceful guy, but the film still says, it takes a village. And I couldn’t help thinking as I watched, I’m part of that village! It’s like wanting to clap for Tinkerbell.
Cynical as I am about how monster-budget blockbusters have come to dominate the studio mind-set, I can’t imagine anyone not liking this one. The Martian is shot, designed, computer-generated, and scripted on a level that makes most films of its ilk look slipshod. Scott and writer Drew Goddard aren’t trying to make an “important” sci-fi movie like Interstellar. They aim lower but blow past their marks.
The movie is even more ingratiating than Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, a guileless, un-crafty piece of storytelling that holds you anyway, because its writer is so absorbed in How Things Work on a lifeless planet that you can’t wait to see Mark solve the next unsolvable problem. Weir is the son of a particle physicist and an electrical engineer, and he immersed himself in the mechanics of space travel. Even NASA folks who found Gravity scientifically ridiculous sat up and saluted him. (Fun fact: He’s afraid to fly.)
The film has the advantage of filling out the thin characters with charismatic A-list actors, and Damon gives a confident movie-star performance: He uses his great comic timing to crack wise while also managing to suggest he’s really frigging scared. The Martian opens with the catastrophe that strands him: storm comes, mission gets aborted, Mark gets slammed by debris and vanishes into the maelstrom, and his commander (Jessica Chastain) searches desperately until the last possible second before getting her team the hell off the planet. The effects are awesome. The astronauts stagger through the storm — fuzzed out by swirling soil — in an image that evokes Mario Bava’s ominously beautiful Planet of the Vampires (a source of inspiration for Alien), and when the storm passes, the 3-D brings out every ripple of Mars’s mountainous terrain. You might think you’re watching a travelogue.
For a while no one knows that Mark survived, but The Martian doesn’t unfold in silence, even when he’s all by his lonesome. He keeps a video diary. He frets, jokes, and trash-talks the red planet. (“Mars will come to fear my botany powers!”) He literally shovels shit to help grow potatoes. He does self-surgery — always good for a wince and a laugh. He soberly calculates his odds. (“Eventually I’m gonna run out of food. So, yeah. [pause] Yeah.) It’s an emotionally irresistible moment when, a few “sols” (Martian days) later, a young NASA monitor (Mackenzie Davis) sees evidence that Mark is alive and alerts mission director Chiwetel Ejiofor who alerts NASA PR director Kristen Wiig who alerts NASA head Jeff Daniels — who alerts the world. Suddenly, everyone in The Martian is problem-solving, including Donald Glover as a zany science student who comes up with an outlandish plan when all seems lost. Even our archrivals, the Chinese, get into the act. It takes a global village.
Plus a lot of good actors. Sean Bean is around doing something important, and zooming toward Earth are Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Mark Vogel. None of their characters know that Mark is still alive because Daniels’s NASA director doesn’t want to burden them with that knowledge. I think they’d be happier to know his body wasn’t back there ossifying. Whatever. The real reason, of course, is that The Martian needs an authority figure whose authority every character gets to flout — to applause and cheers. Even so, at the end of the sol he’s a nice guy.
Are there terrific roles for all these terrific actors? By blockbuster genre standards they’re okay, but no character has more than one or two traits. It’s nice to see Wiig in “straight” roles — it would be nicer if she weren’t so self-effacing. Chastain’s commander is supposed to be an ’80s disco nut (a running gag is that Mark has nothing else to listen to on Mars), but there isn’t much disco in her performance. (She’s still fun to watch, though — that’s one face that holds the camera.) Daniels does an amusing job as the administrator forced to calculate more variables than Watney does, and Ejiofor classes up anything he’s in. I trust they were all well-paid.
These are not empty calories. As Star Trek has inspired generations of astronauts, astrophysicists, and insufferable Comic-Communists, so might The Martian move kids to study science, math, and even botany. Do you think I’m pie-in-the-skying this? This is the movie’s banner line, after Mark bumps up against an unusually formidable obstacle: “I’m going to have to science the shit outta this.” The rollicking climax suggests that by working together, humans can bend space to their will. The movie turns Alien into Friends.