The Martian is that rare bird, a mainstream movie that’s both intelligent and entertaining. What’s more, it’s been directed with an unusually light touch by Ridley Scott. Despite its ambitious nature there isn’t an ounce of pretentiousness in the mix. Writer-producer Drew Goddard took on the task of adapting Andy Weir’s book, which is told (in large part) through a series of dispatches from an astronaut. The screenplay fleshes out that material, adding a supporting cast but retaining the main character’s voice by having him talk to a video camera in diary fashion.
The premise is simple and straightforward: a team of astronauts gathering data and specimens on the surface of Mars is forced to abandon the planet when a violent storm erupts. A flying piece of debris strikes one of them (Matt Damon) and pulls him away in an impenetrable swirl of dust. His colleagues are forced to conclude that he is dead. With great reluctance, and under pressure to flee before their vehicle is destroyed, his commander (Jessica Chastain) gives the order to take off.
As it happens, Damon isn’t dead; when he awakens he realizes what has happened and uses his fertile, scientific mind to figure out how to survive until he can make contact with NASA. Meanwhile, on Earth, the NASA team, headed by Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor, try to figure out how they can save their fallen man, given the fact that it takes months—if not years—to travel to the red planet, not to mention the time required to build the necessary equipment to do so.
The Martian wastes no time with unnecessary exposition: it gets right down to business. Within minutes, the action is underway and Damon’s character takes center stage, using his superior intellect and experience as a scientist to assess his situation and intuit what his colleagues back home will be doing (and thinking) in order to rescue him.
The film is a tour de force for Damon, whose innate likability and everyman qualities make him an ideal hero. What’s more, Goddard has imbued the character with a sense of humor, which is especially welcome in this setting. Damon isn’t a fool: he realizes he might perish but uses his willpower and optimism to avert that possibility.
The production design (by Arthur Max), cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski) and visual effects are a marvel because they don’t call attention to themselves: we accept them as real because that’s how they look, from the dramatic surface of Mars and the HAB (or habitat) that Damon uses as his headquarters to the sleekly modern offices of NASA back on Earth. Everything about the movie seems organic, deftly supported by Harry Gregson-Williams’ score and an entertaining array of source music.
The supporting ensemble is equally strong. Chastain, Daniels, Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, and Donald Glover make substantial contributions as fellow astronauts and members of the ground team at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab. Each character is well-drawn and purposeful in Goddard’s dynamic screenplay. The film is long but nothing is extraneous.The Martian is superior entertainment from start to finish.