Movie audiences couldn’t care less about Mars. That’s fair; until now, no one has given them much reason to care about our closest planetary neighbor. With the exception of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 actioner Total Recall—which, arguably, could have been set on any old planet—Mars has come off as a Frank Frazetta pulp paperback cover (see Andrew Stanton’s 2012 flop John Carter), a “cabin in the woods” straight from a slasher flick (see Antony Hoffman’s 2000 Red Planet) or a red-tinted, deadly dull deus ex machina (see Brian De Palma’s 2000 Mission to Mars, or better yet, don’t.)
That ends now, with Ridley Scott’s terrific adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel The Martian. Scott has a splendid track record of giving life to his settings; think of the spaceship Nostromo from his 1979 classic Alien, or the dystopian Los Angeles of 1982’s Blade Runner. In both instances, Scott made characters of his settings; they each seem to have needs and desires independent of the players standing in front of them. Such is Scott’s Mars—it seems to know that it’s being considered by human eyes, and behaves (and misbehaves) accordingly.
Those eyes belong to astronaut Mark Watney, played with genuine vulnerability and good humor by Matt Damon. Abandoned on Mars by his crew because of a blameless misadventure, Watney is at once terrified—he’s more alone than any human before him has ever been—but also curious, engaged and, in a strange way, kind of euphoric: Here’s a chance for Damon’s character, a botanist by specialty, to “science the shit outta” his unprecedented dilemma. In turn, Mars watches him, and provides the necessary ingredients for a Robinson Crusoe adventure: hostile storms, eye-popping vistas and surprisingly fertile soil.
Damon is the only actor on screen for roughly two-thirds of the film’s running time, and he doesn’t waste the opportunity. While he’s granted the opportunity to speak his thoughts to the audience via a personal video diary, The Martian gives him plenty of close-up and medium shots in which Dariusz Wolski’s camera lingers on Damon’s face and considers the emotions silently playing upon it, like dust storms battering distant mountains. Watney rarely gives voice to his despair, and he doesn’t have to; the desolation filling Damon’s eyes make it explicit.
The Martian does contain a healthy amount of comedy, which Damon delivers with deft understatement. Whether he’s cruising around the Martian plains blasting Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” or embracing his worst living-alone tendencies (“I’m dipping this potato in powdered Vicodin”), Damon never fails to elicit a smile from the audience, or from himself. There’s no over-the-top goofiness, no talking to a volleyball with a face drawn on it—but Damon’s Watney is, in his every moment, an optimist. He looks at himself on screens and doesn’t see someone to blame; he sees the best friend he’s got for millions of miles.
Aside from Watney and Mars, few of the film’s other characters have a chance to develop. Standouts include helpful astrophysicist Rich Purnell, acted by Donald Glover as a brainier, bedraggled version of his character from Community, and Rick Martinez, a crewmate of Watney’s, played with a sly, mischievous grin by Michael Peña. (Had Peña more screen time he might have threatened to steal the film from Damon, as he did earlier this year with Paul Rudd and Ant-Man.) Others barely register: Jessica Chastain mostly frowns as mission commander Melissa Lewis, and Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara and Sean Bean don’t have much opportunity to transcend their roles as they stare worriedly at screens.
But that’s OK. This isn’t a character study; it’s a fun popcorn epic, one that doubles as the world’s greatest endorsement of STEM education. The ad slogan for one of Ridley Scott’s most enduring films, Alien, was “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The Martian works in another way: Not only can you hear the call from space, you might actually want to pick up.
The Martian (PG-13): ★★★★✩