The filmmaker who did more than any other to bum us all out about space travel now wants us to feel inspired by it again.
That's the rough arithmetic behind The Martian, the feel-good (and real good), NASA-condoned, Damon-powered survival adventure flick from director Ridley Scott. More a visual stylist than an exponent of any particular worldview, Scott made the feminist road movie Thelma and Louise, the Best Picture-winning swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator, and about 20 other features. But the two that'll have their titles chiseled on his tombstone are still his second and third, Alien and Blade Runner. Set, respectively, in the 22nd century and, um, 2019, this influential pair shared a vision of the future that can be summed up in one word:
Released just a decade after Neil Armstrong's great leap for mankind, Alien imagined our manifest interplanetary destiny as utterly routine — a mercenary endeavor carried out by working stiffs who don't especially like or trust one another, all on the payroll of a powerful corporation that doesn't blink before sacrificing their lives. Crew Expendable, the secret orders in the ship's computer said.
The Martian resoundingly rejects all that. Bright, thematically can-do, fast-paced almost to a fault, and fundamentally optimistic, The Martian is science fiction of the infinitely more comforting Star Trek strain. We will solve this daunting problem by working together, it coos. When someone decodes a secret message in this movie, it isn't a death order. It's a lifeline.
Adapted intact by geek-TV veteran Drew Goddard from computer programmer Andy Weir's (initially) self-published novel, The Martian avers that humanity's interplanetary ambassadors -- the few up there aboard the Hermes and the many supporting them back here on Earth -- will be the noblest, most inventive, most courageous of us. No wonder NASA loves this movie. But even adjusting for flattery, it's an easy film to love -- one so suspenseful and funny and just richly, consistently good, you might get mad at it falling a few astronomical units short of great. If it gets a generation of seventh-graders fired up about science, I'll happily swallow my nitpicks about overcaffeinated pacing and underdeveloped relationships, wah wah wah.
For those who haven't read Weir's wildly clever and original book, it's almost a spoiler to say there are no cowards or backstabbers or greedheads in The Martian, and precious few tortured pragmatists. The story's big and only bad is the hostile countryside of the Red Planet (played onscreen by Wadi Rum, Jordan, star of Lawrence of Arabia, among others), where Mark Watney -- the indefatigable botanist-astronaut played by Matt Damon -- finds himself stranded after his crewmates leave him for dead. (It's not their fault, in the parlance of an old Matt Damon movie.) Stirred from his slumber by a low-oxygen alarm in his spacesuit, Watney binds his wounds (this is the second Ridley Scott joint in recent years to feature graphic stomach-stapling), and starts puzzling out how to keep himself from exploding, suffocating, freezing or starving until the next Mars expedition lands.
In four years.
In a spot thousands of barren kilometers away.
If the more craven among our species (hey, what are you looking at me for?) might've liked to see Damon lean into the crushing isolation and hopelessness of Watney's predicament just a little harder -- an existential reckoning also absent from Weir's novel -- it's still enormously satisfying to watch him MacGyver his way out of one malice-free deathtrap, then another and another. And all he can do to celebrate another day of livin' is maybe sprinkle some Vicodin on his half-a-potato dinner and raid a crewmate's stash of '70s TV shows and music -- a running joke that gives the movie license to indulge in some on-the-nose-but-welcome song selections, notably David Bowie's "Starman" and that one by Gloria Gaynor.
The film's clean, airy look comes courtesy of the same production designer, cinematographer and editor with whom Scott collaborated on his prior, decidedly less scientific sci-fi, 2012's Prometheus. While he and Damon are both in fine form here, it's ultimately Weir's genius that their work preserves. He's the guy who figured out how Watney might convert hydrazine (rocket fuel) into water, grow food, and even phone home -- an SOS that spurs NASA to put everything aside and devote all its mighty human and material resources to Watney's rescue. In space, no one can hear you scream, but here on Earth? Hey, guy: Everyone is working around the clock and cheering and praying just for you.
Can it possibly be worth it? This interruption of a grander mission to save a single life? Watney, like his crewmates, is clearly prepared to sacrifice himself in the name of scientific progress. Jeff Daniels, as the administrator of NASA -- a decisive leader, where other movies would've made him a careerist worm -- is the only person who even dares to ask. This insoluble moral calculus got more play in Weir's book. It's de-emphasized in the movie, perhaps because This Very Question was already mulled in Saving Private Ryan, where the just-one-life in question was ... uh, Matt Damon's.
That examination isn't the only casualty of The Martian's compression, even at a 140-minute run time. We barely get to know Watney's crewmates, for example, though they become key to his salvation. Led by Jessica Chastain's steely eyed Commander Lewis (who gets a possibly negotiated more direct hand in the finale than she had in the book), they're all smart and loyal and kinda dull and suspiciously good-looking even after many months in space. Indeed, The Martian is one of several current films that populates even its smallest roles with actors who are more than capable, and yet so famous it becomes distracting: Chiwetel Ejiofor! Kristen Wiig! Kate Mara! Sean Bean! Donald Glover! (Black Mass and Everest suffer from this same weird syndrome.)
But it's clearly Damon's show. If it never quite seems like he's hurting as much as he oughtta be -- even when we catch a rare, late glimpse of his wizened, malnourished body -- the depth of my investment in Watney's survival still caught me surprise. (So I cried a little. Is that what you want me to say?) This resonant emotional chord isn't the product of a single, masterful scene, like Tom Hanks' silent dissolution at the end of Captain Phillips; instead, it's the accrued effect of a team of talented and committed professionals working in harmony toward a shared and noble end.
There are worse ideas you could take away from a blockbuster.