If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that The Martian is about Matt Damon getting stranded on Mars and growing potatoes while NASA tries to come up with a plan to save him before he starves to death. In that respect, the movie doesn’t hold many surprises. There are the expected complications, but that’s pretty much what happens. The surprise is that the movie they made from that premise is neither boring as shit nor two hours of Matt Damon chewing on scenery until Mars is reduced to a a swirl of red dust.
The main thing that keeps the movie from becoming an exercise in tedium is the B-story about NASA trying to come up with a plan to get Damon’s character, Mark Whatney, back to earth (once they figure out he’s still alive). While the movie might have worked with just Damon stuck on Mars, it would have felt like either Moon without the twist or a game of chicken between Whatney’s inevitable death and a deus ex machina. Since initially Whatney has no communication with earth, he has to work under the assumption that everyone thinks he’s dead and he has to survive for four years until the next Mars mission lands. If we just saw his side of the story, his attempts at survival would feel more like desperation than determination. The stuff that happens on earth provides suspense by giving us a real timeline that makes it seem like complications and successes can change the outcome rather than just speed up or delay the inevitable.
The Martian is one of those movies that could have easily gone very, very wrong. The first problem is that it’s kind of one of those “triumph of the human will” movies that can easily veer off into pure cheese. Worse still, the movie is very Sorkinesque, and not just because Jeff Daniels is basically playing Will McAvoy as the head of NASA. Just like Sorkin characters, everyone in The Martian is just a little too on the nose when it comes to always making the right decision rather than the smart or convenient or realistic decision. Basically every character in the movie is a goddamn folk hero.
The reason that Scott & co.’s Sorkin channeling doesn’t sink the movie, and the reason there’s not much scenery chewing (despite the constant threat of a Newsroom monologue from Daniels) is because, despite being folk heroes, the people in the movie aren’t really the protagonists. Science is the hero of this story. The characters in the movie don’t do the impossible because they’re smart or determined or amazing, they do the impossible because they know how to break seemingly insurmountable obstacles down to a series of smaller, solvable problems and then science the shit out of them. Even their Sorkinian decisions come across as the result of their trust in the idea that science will find a way, because science in the world of The Martian is more Sorkinly perfect than Jeff Daniels wearing a Sam Waterston costume to his gay wedding with Martin Sheen. This is the kind of movie that would seem like thinly-veiled government propaganda for the space program if anyone believed our government still gave a shit about the space program.
It works. While the kind of idealism in the Martian leads to hate-watching if you see it week after week, it’s very effective in a two-hour movie, and it’s hard not to leave the movie wanting to high-five Neil Degrasse Tyson. Speaking of Tyson, I haven’t read or watched his commentary on the science of the movie, and I probably won’t. Worrying about how much science the movie got right misses the whole point. The Martian is two hours of science porn and, just like with regular porn, it doesn’t have to be anything that could actually happen in the real world.
In addition to all the science, The Martian is an engaging story, sports a cast featuring a lot more “name” actors than I realized, is a lot funnier than I expected, and even includes a little space action. I half-expected it to be one of those movies that’s an objectively good film but not much fun to watch, but it’s actually very enjoyable.
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A lot more fun that you’d expect. Also, SCIENCE!