In Alien, Director Ridley Scott popularized the tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream.” In The Martian, the latest film from Scott, NASA hears the screams of stranded astronaut Mark Watney. Even then, though, it isn’t a quick, speedy rescue. While waiting on a remote planet is no picnic, Watney should just consider himself lucky that chest-bursting aliens don’t inhabit Mars. Then it’d really be game over, man. Game over!
Matt Damon, who previously played an astronaut in Interstellar, stars here as Watney, who is hit by debris during a storm on Mars. His crew consists of Jessica Chastain, who played an astronaut’s daughter in Interstellar, Kate Mara, who went into outer space in Fantastic Four, and Michael Peña, who was attacked by aliens from another planet in Battle: Los Angeles. Believing their crewmate is dead, they take off and Watney is left behind. Mars’ sole resident has enough food, water, and oxygen to last him awhile. He even finds a way to miraculously grow potatoes. Eventually, however, Watney is bound to run out of supplies and will be doomed unless he can contact NASA.
The Martian draws comparison to numerous other isolating sci-fi pictures like Silent Running, Gravity, and Moon. It pretty much could’ve been called Cast Away in Space. The success of a movie like this largely depends on the lead performer’s screen presence and Damon can fortunately do little wrong. He immediately makes Watney an identifiable protagonist who we want to see return home safely. The audience feels the weight of Watney’s overwhelming circumstances, but Damon’s performance isn’t all gloom and doom. He brings an uplifting sense of humor to the role, despite the fact that Watney could die at any second.
While much of the film is spent on Mars, The Martian is far from a one-man show. NASA eventually discovers Watney is still alive and enlists help from scientists all over the globe. We get some great supporting work from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, and Kristen Wiig as some NASA bigwigs that are willing to do whatever it takes to save Watney. Jeff Daniels’ director of NASA is a little more reluctant, though. He wants to see Watney come back to earth alive, but isn’t willing to risk the lives of other astronauts. Once Watney’s crew finds out that their friend was left behind, however, they see little choice but to go back for him.
The Martian doesn’t quite rank up there with the all time great space rescue movies like Apollo 13. Parts of it are drawn out and occasionally it calls to mind one too many other similar movies. At the same time, the film still stands on its own with strong performances, convincing visuals, and a killer soundtrack (assuming you enjoy Disco). It also avoids succumbing to several clichéd subplots you’d see in a lesser sci-fi thriller. There’s no token love story, no one-dimensional villain, no martyr sacrifices, and really no cheap shots whatsoever. Watney’s struggle to survive and NASA’s pursuit to rescue him provides more than enough conflict, drama, and even comedy to carry the movie.