1. The Martian will make you feel better about America, about the goodness of your fellow man, about the limitless possibilities of human achievement. That it’s also rooted in hard science (or at least a movie’s version of hard science, which is close enough), that all its surprises and accomplishments are borne of dogged persistence and maddening trial and error, that it never takes the cheap way out ... it makes you want to cheer. This is a crowd-pleaser that earns its crowd-pleasing. It’s a movie about patience that doesn’t require your patience, a movie about smart people trying to figure out a series of endlessly knotty conundrums that somehow makes that seem like the most exciting, entertaining action you could put onscreen. It’s a science-fiction movie without chase scenes or shootouts, but it’s as thrilling as any I’ve seen in years. It takes pride in the details. It shows its work.
2. The premise is simple. A manned mission to Mars runs into an unexpected storm, and one of the astronauts, a botanist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by a piece of debris and presumed dead. The rest of his crew leaves without him to finish the year-long trip back to Earth, but it turns out that Watney is alive ... and alone. The rest of the movie is a series of math and science problems. How does he survive on a waterless planet where nothing can grow? (Obviously, both this movie and the Andy Weir novel that it’s based on were long in the can before we found out there was water on Mars, which is a relief: It’s fun watching Watney try to figure it out.) Can he use his ship as a shield against the elements? Can he keep himself from going insane with no one to talk to? His colleagues back home have problems, too: Once NASA realizes that he’s alive—and once the rest of the country learns as well, and demands his safe return—they have to figure out how to get him back. Do you just turn around and go get him? How do you get him supplies in the meantime? How many other lives are you willing to sacrifice to bring him home?
3. Thus, we meet the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) strategizing with various scientists (including an eccentric genius played well by Donald Glover), former members of Watley’s crew, and a beleaguered public-relations rep (Kristin Wiig). We also meet the current members of Watney’s crew, led by a guilt-stricken captain (Jessica Chastain) who scrambles to assess where they went wrong and how they can possibly be of service now. But mostly we watch Watney ponder how to get out of this mess. He’s a botanist, and thus adept at growing food and even manufacturing water, but that’s just the beginning. The Martian is too lively and expansive to merely ape Cast Away—this is not just Damon acting in a vacuum—and if anything, it illuminates the part of Cast Away you don’t see, that transition period from Tom Hanks being scared and talking to a volleyball to Tom Hanks all scraggly and skinny and spearing fish. This movie doesn’t cut any corners. If Watney’s gonna get rescued, we’re gonna see exactly how it happens. It’s a story of a survival, but without the fake cheer and empty platitudes. Staying alive is going to require an ass-ton of work, and the film never pretends otherwise; as Watney himself puts it, “We’re gonna have to science the shit out of this place.”
4. One of the more effective aspects of Damon’s performance is that he never seems particularly despairing, despite his impossible predicament. His constant good mood is largely a coping strategy as he’s forced to solve one problem, then another, then another. One of The Martian’s slyest jokes is that Watney, a bit of a cocky sort with absolute faith in his own intelligence, is almost happy to have all these complicated logic problems tossed at him. He enjoys sciencing the shit out of Mars; he might be happier now than he ever was back home. There’s also an increasing sense of elation to the problem-solving happening back on Earth, with incredibly smart people learning what they’re capable of, pushing the edges of what they themselves considered possible. They are desperate and scared for Watney, but excited, too. This is why everybody got into this business.
5. This all leads to the inevitable rescue attempt, which, by now, is being watching by millions of people fully swept up in Watney’s saga. And this is where The Martian really makes you pump your fist: It turns out it really does make a difference when you show your work.. Watching these people spend two-plus hours planning that rescue makes you deeply invested in both the outcome and the process. You feel like you were with them all the way. Furthermore, a back-on-his-game Ridley Scott gives it all a professional entertainer’s brisk sheen: This might be the most warmhearted thing he’s ever done.
6. This is a movie keenly aware of the difficulties that face us, that never gets moony or starry-eyed about space flight, or America, or the struggles still happening on a global level. It does not offer empty “inspirational” platitudes, or tell us to follow our dreams, or advance the notion that anything can be done without hard goddamned work and toil and pain and failure. It says that life sucks, that nature is brutal, that all is difficult. And then it insists we can overcome it, using our wits and our surroundings and our natural abilities. The Martian lifts us because it knows how hard it’s all gonna be—how much it’s gonna hurt—but it still believes in us. It believes we can do anything. And dammit, it’ll make you believe, too.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.