No one involved in either the story of THE MARTIAN nor the audience watching it is more aware of how ridiculous the situation is that astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself than Watney. And we know this because Watney jokes about it constantly, turning what is a certain-death scenario into a story that celebrates and encourages unparalleled hope, bravery, creativity, intelligence and camaraderie. It's science fiction that puts nearly all of its emphasis on science, that isn't afraid to bombard us with formulas, geometry, and physics and those that excel at figuring stuff out. Hell, Watney is a botanist, so we get a few lessons about growing things on a planet where nothing grows, mainly because there's no water (oops!).
Make no mistake, there are times when Drew ("Lost," CABIN IN THE WOODS, WORLD WAR Z) Goddard's screenplay (based on Andy Weir's bestselling novel) feels like one massive word problem, but that only adds wonderful detail to what is a very different brand of space adventure story. Set in the not-to-distant future, the story involves a manned mission to Mars with a crew comprised of Jessica Chastain (as team leader Melissa Lewis), Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie (as the token German). With a film featuring as many characters as THE MARTIAN, it's actually quite remarkable how there isn't a weak link in the cast (and we haven't even gotten to the team back on Earth). It probably helps that the film marks director Ridley Scott's return to extraordinary filmmaking after a few rough years and to science fiction, which has resulted in some of his finest accomplishments thanks to his emphasis on making things seem authentic and tactile.
When a freak sandstorm threatens to topple the crew's only way off planet, Watney is impaled by a nasty piece of metal and presumed dead. Lewis briefly looks for him, but she returns and the crew leaves Watney behind. He manages to drag himself back to the hastily left and well-stocked shelter, and immediately starts making plans, taking into consideration his food and water supply, available oxygen, and battery life in the rover. He constructs a means of manufacturing water, grow plants (well, a healthy supply of potatoes), and even figures out a means of communicating with NASA once again, all the while his crew mates are flying back to Earth, racked with guilt about leaving their fellow traveler behind.
While Watney is going through this process, he's also using small camera to record his process. It's a wonderful device, because if he succeeds, it will make an amazing documentary. But more importantly, it gives Damon a chance to narrate and dive into how his character's big brain is working; and quite often these passages are quite funny, as he comments on the lack of quality music available to him (he's apparently stuck with another crew member's terrible disco playlist and nothing else) and about just how damn clever his ideas truly are. Watney isn't the kind of character who lights up the screen with sheer charisma. Instead it's his simple, measured approach, a touch of sarcasm and skepticism, and a great number of crossed fingers. Damon could not have been better chosen for this part.
And he's only a part of what's going on in THE MARTIAN. Of nearly equal importance is the massive team of mostly familiar faces giving voice to the team at NASA, including Jeff Daniels as the NASA chief; Kristen Wiig as its head of public relations; Sean Bean as the crew's leader on the ground; Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the mission specialists; and Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover as lower-level NASA folks who just happen to may key contributions to the rescue mission to retrieve Watney.
The film boils down to a massive countdown (count up would be more accurate) to how long Watney can survive with his present resources. Even asking him to ration certain things 10 extra days seems excruciating, especially after being alone for a couple of years. The crew isn't told immediately that Watney is still alive because NASA is afraid that the crew will want to turn back, which they do, and then it becomes a question of whether it's worth risking the lives of the entire crew for one man. They decide it is.
The staging of the final rescue mission is pure insanity, and perhaps the only portion of the film that feels somewhat exaggerated, but honestly, at that point in the film, you're probably going to be willing to give the science of it all a little leeway. Nothing about THE MARTIAN feels slick or overdone, especially when it comes to the special effects, which barely register as effects at all. The temptation as a critic is to dive into a handful of stand-out performers or moments and call out their "specialness," but the truth is all of the actors are varying degrees of terrific, even beyond Damon's note-perfect work.
We seem to live in an age where certain groups see science and using one's brain as untrustworthy, and it would break my heart if audiences stayed away from this film for that reason. But THE MARTIAN has filled me with hope, so I'm going to just assume all of you have already purchased your tickets and are lining up as you read this. Enjoy this one immensely.