“The Martian” may need some selling to get you to see it. The plot hook — astronaut stranded on the Red Planet — sounds awfully similar to the recent “Gravity,” and director Ridley Scott has done us no favors recently, either in outer space (“Prometheus”) or back on the home planet (“Exodus: Gods and Kings”). But maybe this is the magic of movies, a collaborative medium involving so many decision trees and so much personnel that it’s amazing it works at all. And “The Martian” really, truly works — not as art, necessarily, but as the sort of epic, intelligent entertainment the mainstream film industry has supposedly forgotten how to craft. All that, and the movie’s a valentine to creative collaboration as well as an example of it. It’s enough to make you almost grateful.
First, though, the script written by Drew Goddard and based on Andy Weir’s 2011 cult novel has to get Mark Watney (Matt Damon) marooned. A monthlong NASA exploration of Mars is forced to abort and return to Earth during a raging windstorm (which apparently doesn’t happen there, but never mind). In the chaos, botanist Watney is left for dead by the rest of his crew, led by Commander Lewis (a terse Jessica Chastain). Surveying his options — how to survive the 400 or so days until a rescue mission might reach him — Watney concludes “I’m going to have to science the [expletive] out of this.”
That may, in fact, be the most subversive aspect of “The Martian” — it makes knowing stuff seem attractive, cool, even sexy. The details of how Watney turns farmer on a planet lacking oxygen or water (which apparently is no longer true either, but never mind), or how he cogitates his way to reestablishing contact with Earth are dramatized in scenes that are crisp, exciting, and zinging with wit. They trade on the bond that audiences have built over the years with Damon as a fleet but grounded presence — the movie star next door. Recurring scenes of Watney talking to the screen by means of video logs are a bit hokey and necessary for exposition, but they also free up the congenial, funny impatience we respond to in Damon.
Where “The Martian” comes alive, though, is in the gathering drama on Earth, where initial satellite evidence that Watney has survived leads to a frenetic rescue mission involving approximately half the actors in Hollywood. Goddard’s script has a few Big Moments and speeches you see coming a parsec or two away, but it’s exceptionally good at clarifying different areas of endeavor and how people do or don’t come together for a greater purpose. It turns process — doing your job and doing it well — into high drama.
So the movie becomes a symphony of characters like Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the scientist heading up the rescue; his wary, bureaucratic NASA boss (Jeff Daniels); the happy wonks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, led by Benedict Wong; Kristen Wiig as a NASA spokesperson, the only person in the entire movie who doesn’t pick up on “Lord of the Rings” references; Sean Bean as the gruff, kindhearted head of the astronaut program (of course he’s the most moral person here — he’s Ned Stark, for Pete’s sake).
At the same time, Scott’s tight yet fluid direction allows space for lovely solo moments to rise out of this symphony: Mackenzie Davis as a young analyst who puts the pieces of Watney’s continued existence together before anyone else and (especially) Donald Glover, who delightfully pockets about 10 minutes of “The Martian” as a deep-math wonk who makes a crucial breakthrough. In a nod to global endeavor (and a bid for the largest international moviegoing market), the Chinese and their space program are allowed to play as well.
Behind all this expertly turned milling about, we sense an audience of billions holding their collective breath for the long, long months before Watney can realistically be reached. In the final scenes of “The Martian” — a complex and possibly insane outer space pas de deux of technology and luck — we hold our breaths too.
The movie flatters the world’s watchers (meaning us) by bringing them in as part of the team and making them want to know as much, to do as much, as the characters stretching their capabilities to the breaking point. By all means please take the kids; this is a great recruitment tool for the STEM fields precisely because it’s so engaging and so inclusive.
“The Martian” understands it takes more than a village to bring its lonely Robinson Crusoe home. It takes a planet.
★ ★ ★ ½