With Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean. Written by Drew Goddard. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. 141 minutes.
It’s nice to have Ridley Scott back. After last year’s “Exodus: Gods and Men,” it was hard to remember when we looked forward to his films. With THE MARTIAN, with screenwriter Drew Goddard adapting Andy Weir’s novel, he is in full command of the medium once again.
The premise might be characterized as “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” meets “Gravity.” From the former 1964 film it takes the concept of an American astronaut stranded on Mars with no immediate way of getting off or being rescued. From the latter 2013 film it takes the seriousness–and serious dangers–of space exploration, trying to be as realistic as possible. (Note to astrophysicists and others ready to nitpick: it’s a movie, which means some liberties may have been taken. Get over it.)
A Mars mission has to be aborted when a severe storm occurs that may damage the ship if they don’t leave immediately. In the evacuation, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck and lost, presumed dead. With moments to spare, the commander (Jessica Chastain) gives the order to leave. What we know going into the film is that he’s survived.
What follows is the process of figuring out how to stay alive and then how to survive long enough to be rescued. It’s a matter, as he says late in the film, of problem solving. He has to solve one problem after another after another and we revel in his triumphs and shudder at his setbacks. Damon uses his boyish good looks (yes, he’s still boyish even as he’s turning 45 next week) to good effect. There are moments when Mark seems like he’s going to lose it and other moments where he sees the humor in his dire situation.
Meanwhile, back on Earth the folks at NASA–headed by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels)–have their own problems. First there’s the memorial service for Watney, which his crew mates can’t attend since they’re still on the ship heading back to Earth, a journey that will take months. Then there’s the discovery that he’s alive. Do they tell the crew? Do they announce it to the public? Can they send him additional supplies? Can they help him until a rescue mission–four years away–can come off?
Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetal Ejiofor), director of the Martian program, wants to do everything they can. However, besides matters of money and time, Sanders also has to question whether to put other lives at stake, as well as the overall fate of the space program. As he notes, his job is to keep them flying.
There are other characters–including the crew who return to the story late in the film–and through both casting and a delicate balancing act we get caught up in the professional lives of the wide range of people who become committed to bringing Mark home safely. It’s a superb ensemble cast with Damon front-and-center for much of the film.
Scott makes us feel both the excitement and potential danger that space crews must face, or will face, once we get serious about leaving Earth again. The recent discovery of flowing water on Mars couldn’t have been better timed. As with the best of the serious space dramas including “Gravity” and last year’s “Interstellar,” this is a movie that leaves you wondering why we’ve turned our back on space.
“The Martian” is engaging drama, exciting entertainment, and one of the best films of the year.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.