The subtitle to Ridley Scott’s The Martian could very well be: Science, Hell Yeah!
The film is pro-science in the way that a sports movie about the rag-tag underdog team that wins the big game is pro sports. The film doesn’t just love science, it’s sentimental about its love for science. It wants everyone who watches the film to love science—or more accurately, scientists—as much as it does. And I have to say, the idea that some budding young engineer—perhaps a kid in a NASA T-shirt somewhere in Texas—is going to see this film and get stars in his or her eyes got me a little misty.
Lest you think the film is all brains, no action, please remember that it’s directed by the guy who brought us Gladiator. The film is absolutely thrilling—and it doesn’t waste any time before getting down to business. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is on a mission to explore Mars, along with his fellow crewmembers and his commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). A deadly storm takes a sudden turn and touches down and, as the crew scrambles to get back on the ship, Watney is struck by a piece of hurling debris. The blow is bad enough that it likely killed him—and with the ferocious wind and flying red dust, Lewis can’t see anything. She has two choices: Risk her entire crew by searching for a man who is probably already dead or leave without him. Reluctantly, she decides to leave. But, of course, Watney is not dead. He wakes up with a punctured space suit and no space ship, alone—on Mars.
There is, however, a space station, filled with about a year’s worth of food and cubbies containing a few minor personal effects for each of the astronauts (including Lewis’s mixed CDs of 70s disco, one of the film’s few overly-played-out jokes). But Watney knows that it might take months for NASA to figure out he’s alive and then as many as four years before they could possibly come back to retrieve him. A space botanist, he’s going to have to create his own food supply—seemingly impossible on a planet where nothing grows and there’s no water.* Watney, who has been videotaping his time alone on Mars for both an accurate record of his survival and to keep himself from going mad, turns to the camera: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” he says.
That’s the best line in the film, and it also perfectly captures the film’s ethos. Because it’s not just Watney who needs to science the shit out of things. Back at NASA, once they figure out that Watney is alive (a satellite camera trained to the planet picked up on his movements), an accelerated rescue mission needs to be coordinated. Basically, things that normally take years to do now must be done in months, even weeks. And then the question emerges: Should they tell the surviving members of the crew, who are still months away from returning to earth, that Watney is alive?
One of the many things I like about The Martian: There are no bad guys. In most films of this type, there’d be some whispered resistance to bringing Watney home. After all, they’d already held a beautiful public memorial service for him, why not just leave him up there? But this is not that kind of film. Everyone wants to get Watney back and for the right reasons; they simply have slightly different agendas. Jeff Daniels, playing the director of NASA, wants to do what’s best for the agency going forward. Kristen Wiig, playing NASA’s director of PR, wants to put the best public spin on things. Sean Bean, as a kind of liaison to the astronauts, wants to keep Watney’s fellow crewmembers apprised of all the developments. And Chewetel Ejiofor, as the director of Mars operations, is bound by both his duty to NASA and his duty to the crew.
There’s more fun science: The always-welcome Donald Glover plays a young astrophysicist—a kind of rumpled, distracted, genius type—who devises a plan to rescue Watney, that’s either totally brilliant or totally insane. (Of course I’m not going to tell you which.)
Better still: The astronauts and physicists are a wonderfully, casually diverse bunch. Glover and Ejiofor are black. Michael Pena, who’s Hispanic, plays one member of Watney’s original crew. The lead rocket scientist (Benedict Wong) is a Chinese-American, and the Chinese space program is instrumental in assisting Watney’s rescue mission. The ship’s commander is a woman, as is one more crew member (Kate Mara), plus a digital expert back at home (Mackenzie Davis).
Screenwriter Drew Goddard, working off Andy Weir’s beloved novel, does a great job of keeping us engaged with what happens on the ground, but we spend most of our time alone, with Watney. At one point, in a sort of awed voice, Watney notes that everything he does on Mars is a first: First to walk here. First to see this. First to grow something there.
Even once he manages to grow potatoes in a kind of makeshift greenhouse, his odds are survival are slim, and he knows this. But he just solves one problem at a time. That’s all he can do. Damon is great in this part, relying on his natural charisma and lightening-quick smarts to keep us engaged with Watneys every thought,his every mood swing. A few critics have objected to Watney’s impish sense of humor throughout his ordeal—it certainly makes the science-y parts more fun—but I bought it. If you’re a funny person, you’re funny in a crisis. Also, Watney’s sense of humor is probably what kept him alive.
I’m the least mechanically inclined person alive, so I have no idea if the science in The Martian is accurate. It sure felt accurate, which is all that matters in a way. On top of being wildly entertaining, the film is about using your wits to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. In a country that often values feats of strength more than feats of intelligence, that’s something to cheer about, indeed.
*Okay, so it turns out there’s water.