Things we knew about Mars: It’s 140,000,000 miles away, it’s cold as hell and it ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. But after screening The Martian, we now know that you can raise potatoes, if you know a little something about botany.
Ridley Scott’s film, adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, sets up a nail-biter of a premise. When a storm forces scientists to abandon their research lab on Mars and return to Earth, one of the team is left behind. They think he is dead, but it’s a technical glitch on his bio-meter.
So when the dust settles, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is in quite the pickle. The lab provides shelter, food, water and oxygen, but only for a limited time. And worse: Nobody back on Earth knows he’s still alive!
So begins The Martian’s basic structure of establishing a problem, solving it and moving on to the next. Need food? Jury-rig a greenhouse. Discover you left somebody on Mars? Get rocket scientists working to bring him back. The action cuts between Watney, on Mars, and Earth, where NASA, with admirable sang froid, also corrals its resources. It’s MacGyver in Space intertwined with a NASA promotional reel.
The Martian is so relentlessly optimistic about people and institutions that it feels jarring and old-fashioned in our otherwise cynical times. It’s a real testament to problem-solving — “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” says Watney — and an unabashed celebration of being smart. (Why not take the kids? It might get them excited about STEM and can-do-ism. There are a couple of f-words, but really, what else is there to say when you discover you’ve been left behind on Mars?)
The film is a bona fide crowd-pleaser and a good deal funnier than you’d expect, but it misses the mark on being great. At 141 minutes, it’s too long, especially when there are few narrative surprises. The action on Earth is simply quality-TV-movie, despite a decent cast; the film’s best parts are Watney puttering about on Mars (“Everywhere I go, I’m the first.”). And the last reel lacks the punch we’ve been waiting for; it’s heavy with explanation rather than weightless with emotion.
In fact, any exploration of the psychological costs — the horror and loneliness — is curiously absent from the ever-quippy Martian. Isolation is crippling and outer-space isolation is the worst. (See Silent Running, Moon, even Damon’s other recent space journey in Interstellar.) Even the equally even-keeled and affable Tom Hanks went bonkers in Castaway, and that was a balmy tropical island! This is a super-sunny approach to deep-space problems, even though Mars is pretty far away from the sun.