The Martian: Ridley Scott Scores Big

Matt Damon in The Martian

All images courtesy of 21st Century Fox/Scott-Free Productions

The Martian: Ridley Scott Scores Big
| published October 6, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Some movies have a kind of hyper-predictable template even going in—you just pretty much know and understand the plot, and all the things that can go right and wrong with the protagonist. And you are aware of the narrative even before you get comfy in your theater seat. Often, that level expectation can lead to a bad movie. On occasion, however, it can produce happy results.

Such is the case—the second outcome—with Ridley Scott’s new epic sci-fi adventure, The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir. The film stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, Jeff Daniels as NASA director Ted Sanders, Jessica Chastain as astronaut Melissa Lewis, and Kristen Wiig as NASA PR chief and press spokesperson Annie Montrose. The excellent ensemble cast also includes Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Team in The Martian
The plot is basic, taut, and easy-to-digest right from the start. In the near future, a team of astronauts is working on the surface of Mars when they are forced to abort their long-term mission and evacuate in their rocket ahead of a violent surface storm. In the chaotic moments before they lift-off from the Martian surface, one of their crew—Watney (Damon) is killed by flying debris. The rest of the team blast off and return to Earth, transmitting the sad news back to NASA and Earth that they have lost one of the crew of six. But Watney has, in fact (predictably, for otherwise we would have no plot) survived, albeit injured, and now left-for-dead. While the crew of the spaceship begin the long voyage back to Earth, Watney—cut off from communications with NASA—must make his way, surviving on oxygen, food and water enough originally intended to last only a few months at most.

Watney has shelter, of sorts—a small bio lab and habitat designed to serve as home for the crew, along with its modest supplies of snacks, meals-ready-to-eat, bottled drinks, and medical supplies. He also has solar power enough to sustain a modest level of operations inside the structure, including computers, lighting, cooking tools and digital video recording mechanisms.

It is fortunate for both us (as moviegoers) and our stranded protagonist that he is a botanist by formal education. After a few days of mulling his fate and facing a slow doom by thirst or starvation, Watney decides he must survive for the long haul, possibly a four year wait until the next scheduled arrival of a new crew with a new mission. He must very quickly formulate a plan to grow food, and just as quickly work out the process of generating water. Through the initially disgusting process of recycling human waste, mixing it with surface soil, fertilizing it and tending it so that it is capable of sustaining a small indoor crop, Watney must use the majority of the floor space in his shelter as a small farm. In all these challenging tasks he succeeds, but not without setbacks, snafus, and some dangerous accidents along the way. But even after solving these problems, and carefully rationing the food, he knows he has purchased for himself modest measures of time—a few more months here, a few weeks there. Without a plan of some sort, he will still likely die on Mars.

Back on planet Earth, NASA goes about the routine business of planning future missions, and jockeying for funding from Congress in the wake of a disaster which has left an astronaut dead. Retrieving Watney’s body is a sidebar issue for administrators in Houston and Washington, but there are billions of dollars at stake for future missions—and politics is always a factor. But when NASA mission specialists in Houston—routinely monitoring high resolution images of the surface of Mars—notice that objects near the previous landing and research site seem to be moving, from one photo to the next, they realize something is amiss. Solar panels go from being covered with dark red soot to being clean. Objects are being moved, perhaps cannibalized. A rover can be seen in a new position, with fresh tracks. Watney is alive.

Thus the plot morphs instantly away from what it had been up to that point—an entertaining sci-fi remake of Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Instead of our hero being stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific, he is stranded on the surface of Mars.

Matt Damon in The Martian
Again, predictability abounds in The Martian, but rarely does the plot’s overt reliability distract us from the tension or from the emotional complexities presented. Part of what makes this movie work so well is its insistence on anchoring itself firmly upon good science—ergo, the fact that we see some things coming right at us proves to be a useful and even powerful element in the film’s success. Because space exploration is an adventure fraught with calculated risk, we know that Watney’s long duration battle to survive will itself present multiple challenges to be overcome, or circumnavigated, or diffused. Add to that the complex, seemingly insurmountable technological problems now faced back on Earth—at NASA, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the tech centers around the world—as untold numbers of engineers and scientists labor to figure out a way to bring Watney home.

Instead of a lone castaway stranded on a distant planet, a resolution to Watney’s plight becomes a collaborative effort, drawing-in dozens, then hundreds, eventually thousands of people working in tandem and under great pressure. At this point, we leave the Robert Zemeckis classic of a Fed Ex trainer cast onto a distant island, and move quickly into another Tom Hanks classic, Apollo 13. But never mind, as I say. Familiarity makes this adventure story not only comfortable, but even thrilling and thought-provoking.

Spoiler alert: hopefully we will not ruin things by informing you that our protagonist makes it safely back to Earth, but only after an hour of screen time devoted to the intensely critical process of getting him off of the Martian surface and into the arms of a rescue team—which in this case turns out to be his former crew members who had left him behind accidentally at the start of the film.

The Martian, as a movie, benefits mightily—as sci-fi films sometimes do—from real-life science unfolding in the news, often in dramatic fashion. The film opened this past weekend only days after NASA scientists confirmed what has long been suspected, but never verified until now: that water once existed, and indeed exists now, on the surface of the Red Planet. Some of NASA’s most revealing discoveries in recent weeks have added volumes of understanding to what we know about Mars, and since Mars is now the subject of recent intense technological study in preparation for manned missions to the planet beginning in only a few years, the release of the movie could not have come at a better moment in the national and international conversation.

As this year’s prestige science fiction, The Martian in some ways tops last year’s highly watchable, but far more baroque big-budget epic, Interstellar—in which Matthew McConaughey must travel across the galaxy in a long-odds gamble to locate an inhabitable planet, an alternative to Earth where crops are failing and society is sliding into decay. Interstellar attempted to overtly challenge the wide themes and broad-stroke power of the Stanley Kubrick classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Interstellar took on black holes and wormholes, along with the always immensely complex business of time travel. The Martian makes no such pretense. It is an adventure yarn, plain and simple, with a lot of adherence to science-in-the-news and fidelity to near-future planned space explorations; indeed, it benefits greatly from lucky timing as NASA unveils new information almost daily about Mars and other near-Earth neighbors.

The Martian runs a little long at two hours and 22 minutes, but it doesn’t feel long as you are drawn into the inevitable challenges of survival and rescue. The film is tautly edited, and moves generally seamlessly from one segment to the next. Damon is superb in the role of the solitary castaway, and as his once-lonely fight for survival suddenly turns toward a complex, collaborative effort, he works well pitted against Jeff Daniels' portrayal of the pragmatic and politically realistic NASA administrator.

Also, it is worth noting that this film marks a big critical comeback for director/writer/producer Ridley Scott, whose credits include plenty of winners—Alien (1979), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001)—but also a fair number of recent overproduced, big budget duds, like the sci-fi adventure, Prometheus (2012), The Counselor (2013), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). Prometheus may have been one of the most unwatchable sci-fi movies ever made, a sad state of affairs from the same director who brought audiences the classic original Alien, which ranks on our top ten list of the greatest science fiction films.

The Martian is Ridley Scott at his best, and well worth the ticket price to see this one on a large screen. In other words, don’t wait for a premium channel showing or pay-per-view—see it now.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Interstellar: Science, Sci-Fi & the Humanity Thing; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 19, 2014.

When Time Travel Was Fun: Back to the Future at 30; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 11, 2015.