There are dreamers and there are doers. In the best case scenario the dreamers inspire the doers, and together they push humanity forward. The most successful example of this is Star Trek; Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a possible future has inspired countless engineers and scientists, who have spent their lives bringing to fruition the science fiction concepts that were born on flimsy plywood sets. If you walk into a NASA engineering facility it’s a good bet that you will discover a space program full of people who found their inspiration in a TV show that boldly went where no one had gone before.
Somewhere in the world a brilliant 12 year old is waiting for inspiration. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s ready for a fictional vision of the future that will snap her world into focus, that will give her a bigger picture than the school books she’s reading and will set her on a path to changing the world and the destiny of humanity. The Martian is that movie.
The Martian is a movie that can save the world. It’s a movie dedicated to the greatest side of humanity that is so rarely celebrated in film, our can-do problem solving nature. It’s a film that embraces all aspects of human greatness - bravery, compassion, love, curiosity - but it is an unprecedented examination of humanity’s ability to set our minds to a problem and, working together without ego or competition, absolutely triumph over it. It’s a movie that reminds us that all of the problems facing our world are surmountable, and that with the right attitude and the right math and the right dedication we can solve them all, one after another. The Martian isn’t about some namby-pamby feeling of hope, it’s a step-by-step guide to achieving the change for which we hope.
Based on a self-published novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is the story of an American astronaut on Mars who gets left for dead by his crew in an emergency evacuation. Knocked out by debris during a terrible storm he wakes up in the morning alone on a deserted planet, the nearest humans speeding away from him at incredible speeds, unable to contact anyone back at home.
That man is Mark Watney, and while he at first gives in to the inevitability of his death (something director Ridley Scott gets across wordlessly, having Watney simply tidy up the left behind personal belongings of his fellow astronauts, an action that shows the man putting everything away and preparing for the end) he quickly decides to survive. Faced with unimaginably harsh conditions Watney puts his mind to the task and thinks through every obstacle facing him, eventually becoming the first man to grow food on Mars - just one of many firsts this castaway experiences.
As the months pass the folks back at NASA finally become aware that Watney is still alive; separated by millions of miles and with no good way to communicate - they only figure out he’s still there thanks to satellite imagery - they have to come up with impossible solutions to not just keep this guy going but also to bring him home safely. And so two dramas play out - there’s the drama on Mars where Watney contends with a planet that is hostile to life and where the smallest mistake means ultimate disaster, and there’s the drama on Earth where the scientists and administrators at NASA must scramble against physics, time and public opinion to do the right thing. Trapped between the two is the crew of the Hermes, the ship that brought Earthlings to Mars, heading away from their lost comrade, unaware he’s still alive.
In recent years Ridley Scott has been a hit-or-miss director, with an awful lot of misses. It has become clear that Scott remains a great visual storyteller, but that he needs the story itself to be rock solid or else he ends up with something like Prometheus, a movie that looks great but is nonsense. The Martian’s story is rock solid. Weir’s novel offers the foundation and Drew Goddard’s exceptional, funny and captivating script brings it home. In the terminology of the movie Goddard’s math is totally correct and he has absolutely mapped out the perfect trajectory for bringing Weir’s prose into Scott’s visual world.
It’s honestly impossible to discount the work of Goddard and Weir here; even the Scott movies I have liked in the last few years (see: The Counselor) have had character work that is wonky at best. A movie like Prometheus shows that Scott prefers atmosphere and action over things like character and sense, but The Martian is a movie that thrives on both character and sense (the film makes you feel like all of its science is plausible). The last time a Ridley Scott movie had characters as luminous and full and absolutely wonderful as these was Thelma & Louise, and that was a long time ago. All of that is on the page.
It is also, to be fair, in the casting. Matt Damon gives a classic Hollywood star performance in The Martian - he’s magnetic and watchable and nuanced and layered. This is an Oscar-winning performance, a role that reminds you why you fell in love with Matt Damon in the first place. The Martian doesn’t spend a lot of time on characters having feelings so Damon has to fit all of that in the cracks between the survival and the science and he is simply incredible at it. He can express the breaking of Watney’s spirit in a small movement while also telling us about the way the man regroups and recommits to survival in just the way he straightens up. The few scenes where Watney is broadly emotional - a fit of anger, a small bit of crying - Damon delivers with surgical precision.
Perhaps the most incredible part of Damon’s performance is the way he delivers his technical lines. Much of his dialogue is in the form of video journals, asides to video cameras, in which he explains what he’s doing - growing potatoes in his own shit, rejiggering solar cells to give his rover a longer range, making water out of rocket fuel - and he delivers all of this with not just confidence but with ease. Damon’s Watney exists fully in the world of science, he is completely conversant with it, and he can speak about it in a way that doesn’t make it sound complex or daunting but rather simple and understandable. The Martian doesn’t want you to think that science is something out of your reach, it wants you to realize the science happening around you at all times and Watney’s casual, funny delivery of his lines brings that home. It’s a huge part of what makes the film so inspirational.
It’s easy to compare The Martian to Gravity, 2013’s survival in space story, but the two couldn’t be more different. For one thing Gravity is a rollercoaster movie, a thrill ride first and foremost. The Martian is thrilling and it is funny but it is also a movie that feels like hard science as opposed to Gravity’s easy-going relationship with things like physics. And while Damon’s Watney is the center of the movie, and while he takes up most of the screen time and is alone in those scenes, it’s not about his solo journey. The Martian extends beyond Watney and the immediate Mission Control faces to bring in a web of engineers and scientists, technicians and administrators. This is important because the inspirational quality of The Martian doesn’t come from one guy doing it alone - it comes from a group of people doing it together, supporting one another with their expertise and dedication.
While he rarely has scene with any of them, Damon is supported by an extraordinary cast of actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor is Vincent Kapoor, director of the Ares missions to Mars, and he provides the other pole around which this magnificent movie rotates. I believe Damon and Ejiofor could have swapped roles and been excellent in each others’ parts, with both showing fierce intelligence, deep humanity and a flowing sense of humor that creates complete humanity in men dedicated to a specific and overriding cause - survival. While Watney battles the conditions on Mars, Kapoor must navigate a world where NASA, home of humanity’s absolute greatest and most immortal achievements, must still fight to stay alive. The Watney situation is a political time bomb, and it must be handled correctly… while also trying to bring the man back alive. While Ejiofor’s Kapoor often bumps his head against the walls of publicity (personified by Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, NASA’s PR person) he keeps his eyes on the goal; what’s more he has to do this while also deciphering what Watney is doing on Mars, often only through satellite imagery.
Ejiofor is one of our great actors, and his big eyes are filled with the sort of kind humanity that gives a character like this - maybe a wonk, definitely an administrator - a deep reality. Jeff Daniels is given a very different task as Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA. Throughout the film you’re never quite sure how to feel about Sanders - he’s not a bad guy, but is he going to place politics ahead of Watney’s life? And if he does, is he wrong? Is the future of NASA - more missions, more exploration, more hope - worth risking just to save the life of one man? Of course the eventual answer is that those two things are one and the same, but Daniels brings a gruff authority to his journey to that understanding.
The other supporting actors show up to be wonderful in their own way; Donald Glover is a joy as an absent-minded astrodynamics engineer who brings key insight to the rescue operation, while Sean Bean is a rock of solid morality in the chaos of NASA’s decision-making. Mackenzie Davis is a low-key delight as Mindy Park, a Mission Control tech who is slightly over her head in everything but always, doggedly keeping up. Benedict Wong finds sweet humor as Bruce Ng, the JPL engineer tasked with bringing the impossible to life at improbable speed.
And then there’s the crew of the Ares, a murderer’s row of great actors given small roles - but small roles they nail so completely that you feel like you know them all. Jessica Chastain finally gets to be in a great space movie as Commander Lewis, whose tough exterior hides a love for disco. Sebastian Stan is cool as ever, while Kate Mara brings intense intelligence to a very small role. But the MVP of the Ares crew is the guy who is the MVP of every single movie in which he appears - Michael Pena, whose pilot Rick Martinez has a winning sense of humor (are you seeing a through line here? The Martian is really funny) but also bravery and a touching familial relationship. All of these characters get a fraction of the screentime of everyone else, but they all feel real and complete, which is why you hire great actors for small roles. You get the most out of them.
I didn’t expect to love a Ridley Scott movie so completely. I’ve often been at arm’s length from Scott’s films; he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, but I’ve rarely felt the tug of emotion from his films. The Martian is incredibly emotional, even as it avoids overt emotionality. The emotions live in the margins, existing in tandem with all the sciencing and the survival but no less important. I loved these characters, and as the film reached its climax I felt something I rarely do at the movies anymore - I almost wanted to stop the movie because I worried something bad was going to happen to one of them. The thought of these heroic, smart, selfless people meeting any sort of bad end was too much for me.
What a climax it is, by the way. It’s all about math and I was literally, no joke, not using critic hyperbole, sitting on the edge of my seat during it. Characters are running around talking about intercept speeds and low Mars orbits and I was leaning forward, rapt and terrified that something, anything would go wrong. It was purest cinema - engrossing, engaging, visceral - and it made me feel smarter for having watched it.
I tend to cry at inspirational or hopeful or triumphant moments in movies. I must have cried a hundred times during The Martian. I wanted to pump my fist a dozen times, I wanted to stand up and cheer, I wanted to applaud wildly (I try to be a courteous moviegoer, though, so I kept my effusive exclamations to myself). The Martian entertained me - it’s fun and and it’s funny - and The Martian moved me. But more than anything else, The Martian reminded me that humans can be great, that we can work together to do great things, and that sometimes the greatest thing we can do is help out another person.
In the 1960s we, as a nation, had a will to conquer space. That will has eroded over the last few decades. The Martian is the sort of movie that can reignite that will, that can capture the imaginations of a generation and remind them that the human adventure cannot end within the atmosphere of this planet, that we can and should continue out to discover and learn and experience new things. There’s a whole universe of firsts waiting for us.
The dreamers behind The Martian will hopefully inspire the doers. But The Martian will do more than swell the ranks of astronaut candidates and astrodynamics students. It reminds us that the problems we face today - global warming, drought, famine - are surmountable. If we come together with a will to solve these problems we can do it, and we can bring humanity to the next level. All we have to do is have the courage to science the shit out of it.