Arts movie review

If only NASA had funding

Matt Damon stars as the ultimate nerd hero


The Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain

Rated PG-13

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Big-budget science fiction is experiencing something of a renaissance. Director Ridley Scott’s The Martian follows a string of commercially minded, studio-backed sci-fi movies, including Interstellar and Gravity, which play out small-scale personal dramas on a big-scale stage (outer space).

Set in the not-too-distant future, The Martian tracks astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he fights to return home after being accidentally stranded on Mars by his crew, leaving him with few supplies and a lot of disco. Scott, no stranger to epic filmmaking (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings) nor science fiction blockbusters (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus), keeps the action (both cerebral and physical) engaging while leaving room for gorgeous sequences that capture the vast, beautiful desolation of space.

Damon imbues Watney with warmth, intelligence, and good-natured humor, all while carrying large chunks of the movie on his own. Most of Watney’s time is spent using his tenacious problem solving skills to overcome a series of obstacles (many of them brought on by his own ingenious solutions to earlier problems), affably addressing the audience through a running video-log he films — a ubiquitous GoPro becoming his space-Wilson, and keeping us engaged.

In parallel, the film also traces the efforts of his crew and Earth-bound colleagues at NASA to stage a rescue mission, until, eventually, the two stories intersect. The Martian boasts a stellar supporting cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and Jeff Daniels, each of whom make you wish their characters got more screen-time.

That is, in fact, the only real criticism of the movie: a lot happens in The Martian, and very fast. Many characters come and go. Part of this is the inevitable result of consolidating an already-packed (and, for what it’s worth, terrific) novel to fit a runtime of 2 hours and 21 minutes. Adapting Andy Weir’s best-selling book by the same name, screenwriter Drew Goddard does a good job excising sections of the source material without losing the original spirit of the book, but could have streamlined the story even further.

For those who haven’t yet read the novel, wait until after you’ve seen the film: except for a digression or two near the end, the film remains fairly faithful to the book, so it’ll be more fun if you don’t already know what’s coming next, or how Mark will manage to get himself into his next big mess by trying to get out of his last one.

In developing his story, which began as a thought experiment of how a stranded astronaut would survive on a barren planet, Weir let the science guide the plot, and a lot of the exciting things that happen in The Martian are even cooler because they actually could. At the same time, the story is funny and engaging in large part because the sentiments it conveys, through Mark, are so relatable: optimism, curiosity, and wonder at the bigness of the universe and the resilience of the human spirit.

The story effectively captures the transcendent power of the things that bring people together, boldly making the claim that the true value of space exploration lies in the innovation and collaboration that make the imaginable possible. While these ideas are perhaps developed more fully in the book, they remain at the heart of the film.

Perhaps the best thing the movie has going for it is timing: with Congress defunding NASA’s human exploration budget, and Commercial Crew slipping even further, this is a terrific moment for filmmakers, storytellers, and dreamers in general to re-engage the public imagination through the wonder of space exploration. And to its credit, NASA is capitalizing on the excitement surrounding the film, hosting Matt Damon at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of the film’s press campaign, and presenting a panel discussion on the Agency’s plans for future manned Mars mission which included Weir and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, along with Deputy Administrator (and MIT professor) Dava Newman.

If you like sci-fi films, nerd thrillers, the space program, and/or Matt Damon, go see The Martian. Then go write your Congressional representative and demand more funding for NASA and human spaceflight. Then go see The Martian again! It’s that good.