We've been getting one or two big movies about space travel yearly, like "Gravity" and "Interstellar," which have been nice to see, but the recent ones haven't really been to my tastes. Sure, they have big ideas and big budget spectacle, but they've also been such grim, unhappy affairs. Go into space and you risk a wide array of immediate, physical dangers, but also more existential threats, like everyone you knew on Earth being dead when you get back, because space travel takes such a long time. Why would anyone want to go explore the vast reaches of the galaxy with that in mind?
That's why I'm so, so grateful for "The Martian," which puts the humanity back into the space race. We begin a few decades into the future, where a small group of astronauts have come to Mars on a planned, routine mission. A bad storm forces them to evacuate, leaving behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is believed to be dead. However, Watney survives and has to figure out how to live for more than a year on Mars with dwindling supplies, how to contact NASA, and how to mobilize himself to reach important resources. Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) face their own challenges trying to mount a rescue once they realize Watney is still alive. And how much do they tell Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the crew from the Mars mission, who are on their way back to Earth?
All the bad things that you would expect to happen in this kind space survival movie are addressed in one form or another. You definitely see the influence of "Gravity" and all the other space disaster films that have come before. This time, however, the attitude is completely different. Watney approaches each problem like a challenge to be solved, rarely expressing any anger or angst over his situation. He talks through each new puzzle in his video logs, often cracking jokes and commenting on the absurdity of what he's doing. Sure, he experiences setbacks and low points where things look especially bleak, but Watney keeps going without much fuss. Everybody in the movie does. And it's so refreshing that the story stays firmly focused on the science and on the problem-solving ingenuity of the characters, avoiding all the usual manufactured personal drama designed to make our heroes feel more human, but often does the exact opposite.
"The Martian" recently ended up in the "Best Comedy or Musical" category at the Golden Globes, which is ridiculous, but I can see how the argument was made. There are segments here that are genuinely funny and irreverent, including a delightful meeting with an astrodynamicist played by Donald Glover that starts off with a nerdy "Lord of the Rings" discussion. Damon's performance is also a wonderful source of physical pratfalls and agreeable everyman kvetching. I'd definitely categorize "The Martian" as a science-fiction adventure film, but it's been so long that we've seen a really optimistic, non-apocalyptic entry into the genre, I suppose it's understandable why some people have gotten confused. This is the kind of feel good, go team, everybody pulling together for the big win crowd pleaser I didn't know a space movie could be anymore.
This is also a big departure for Ridley Scott, whose recent track record hasn't been great. Scott deftly handles all the difficult technical business required in an effects-heavy space film, but lets Drew Goddard's lighthearted script and a soundtrack heavy on disco standards do their thing. There's no sign of his usual broody intensity and only a small bit of atmospheric gloom. Also, kudos for keeping a film with so many different characters slinging so much exposition at each other, so coherent and dynamic. I am definitely looking forward to the next "Prometheus" sequel after this.
I've seen a few complaints that "The Martian" is too lightweight, that there's never any real question about the outcome of the story, which undercuts the tension and thrills. And if you go into the movie thinking that you're getting another "Castaway" or another "Gravity," I can see where a viewer might be disappointed. However, I was just pleasantly surprised through and through. I love this movie. I love the fact that it takes place in a future not too far off that I couldn't imagine all of it really happening. I love that it's so positive about science and engineering and potatoes.
More movies like this, Hollywood. More movies like this!