Sci-fi, in any medium, is hard. Those who take it on are charged with the almost impossible task of capturing the raw, human experience of exploration and expansion as well as shock and awe at the enormity and diversity of our universe, all while managing to not tick off the hardcore, scientifically informed viewers who will point out every inaccuracy along the way.
“The Martian,” based on a novel by Andy Weir, has been heralded by science fiction fans as one of the most — if not the most — accurately written novel about space travel to date. In the novel, an unfortunate turn of events leaves astronaut and biologist Mark Watney alone on the surface of Mars. Every day there is a new problem, and every day he must find a solution in order to survive — and often, his solutions lead directly to the next problem. Rather than shying away from the complexities in the science, Weir saturates his novel with scientific jargon and mathematical calculations, delivered by a snarky, sarcastic Watney in the form of log entries.
It is difficult enough to write a novel so steeped in technical detail yet still gripping and moving. Translating that story to the big screen is even harder. But if there is anyone up to the task, it is director Ridley Scott. Though several of his recent films have floundered, Scott found the vein that made his seminal sci-fi horror film “Alien” (1979) such a massive success. Brought to life by the sharp screenplay by Drew Goddard (“Cabin in the Woods,” “Daredevil” TV series), which managed to retain a lot of the science in the novel, “The Martian” will not disappoint most of the fans of the novel who enjoyed the level of scientific content. In fact, it is one of the few fictional films NASA has endorsed (and allowed to use its logo), and the space organization has teamed up with the film to advocate and discuss space travel.
But this film is not just for scientists. Where it really succeeds is in its ability to connect to a wider audience. Primarily responsible for this is Matt Damon, who brings Watney to life in all of his quirky, sarcastic humor. Essentially tasked with holding up the majority of the film single-handedly (after all, he has no one to talk to), Damon is instantly likable, relatable and, perhaps most critically, indubitably human. His performance, backdropped with the beautiful Martian landscape, is both nuanced and powerful. He is funny not just for the sake of the audience but because his humor is a critical defense mechanism against panic and depression. His ability to stay positive in light of the odds makes those moments when all hope seems lost ever more powerful, and his reactions to having the assumption of relative safety ripped away hits hard.
The supporting cast of the film is long and distinguished, with Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Donald Glover all among the astronauts and NASA engineers working to rescue Watney. Their scenes are evocative of “Apollo 13” (1995): The whole world is watching, and the engineers are working round the clock to establish communication with Watney, orchestrate a probe with food and eventually attempt a rescue. While the film focuses on Damon’s character on Mars, it gives most of the supporting characters enough screen time to make an impact, which is refreshingly unexpected.
These confluent strengths leave little to be critical of; most of the nagging elements are introduced in the editing room. Besides a few tacky onscreen titles and one out-of-place time lapse, only the score leaves something to be desired. Ultimately, it doesn’t hurt the film; Damon and Scott don’t need much music to sell the story. But there is a sense that given the beautiful setting and emotional themes, there is a bit of a wasted opportunity with the lackluster score.
These complaints ultimately pale in comparison to Damon’s performance, around which there is now plenty of Oscar buzz. Depending on the interests of the audience, the film will be either a powerful affirmation and illumination of space travel or simply a well-written action/suspense film. Regardless of which, it’s a damn entertaining experience.