It is remiss to classify The Martian as “Ridley Scott’s” or “Matt Damon’s” or with any other possessive; it is a true ensemble film. Though the story begins in serious medias res with the crew of the Ares III mission escaping a Martian dust storm and leaving Matt Damon’s Mark Watney behind on the red planet, this is not Cast Away where we dwell on our lone character for the majority of the runtime. The success of the narrative and the impact of the theme require that seemingly infinite characters aid in Watney’s survival, but also that Watney himself is capable of titanic intellectual feats. What results is a film dictating that the strength of humanity is found in the reasoning mind – from an isolated individual struggling to survive to large teams working towards effecting a rescue.
At the beginning of the film, head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) informs the public that the mission had to be aborted and the Watney was killed in the evacuation. A quick cut later and we see Watney wake up covered in Martian dirt, oxygen alarms blazing, and he rushes to the habitat where he can decompress, don his suit, and remove the communications antenna which impaled him during the dust storm. Once he has performed self-surgery to remove the antenna, he has a moment to catch his breath and utter his first words alone on Mars: “Fuck!”
While we got a strong feel for the humorous tone of the film in the opening sequence with the repartee between the crew of the Ares, it is in this moment that we realize just how funny The Martian is going to be. Through selective use of some F-bombs, clever diegetic censoring of profanity, and an incredibly sardonic wit, Watney quickly becomes an audience favorite as he delivers lines like, “I am going to have to science the shit out of this” and “I blew myself up, because I’m stupid”. And yet, we admire him more for his ingenuity, as we see him making inventories of his resources, performing calculations to understand exactly when he will die of hunger, and becoming Mars’ first potato farmer.
At this point, the narrative of The Martian feels like a snowball rolling down a hill. As Watney secures his food supply and begins contemplating a way to contact NASA, they have already figured out that he must still be alive. Eventually he discovers a way to make contact, modify his paltry means of communication into a complex code system, and then (with help from NASA), hack his rover to establish what amounts to an instant messenger app (with a 24 minute delay, of course).
So what begins as Watney stranded with only his mind to rely upon quickly becomes the combined brainpower of an entire scientific community. The challenges remain great, and there are crucial plot details which further stress this cooperative spirit. Hence, it is no surprise when the crew of the Ares choose to save Watney themselves, nor that NASA successfully cooperates with a certain communist space-faring government to assist the astronauts. Here, the film makes clear the heights to which humankind can ascend with a respect for science and a spirit of accomplishment.
It is therefore no surprise that the ensemble cast of this film absolutely astounds. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong and many others round out a cast that injects heart and reality into every single role. All of these actors, Damon included, make the near-future of The Martian feel preordained instead of imagined, and this serves to keep the audience in a palpable tension throughout the film. They are all marvelous in their roles, and I would not be surprised to see some acting nominations for some of the cast come awards season (although, they are probably long shots due to the genre of the film).
The Martian is a near-perfect film, with a sleek and streamlined narrative that wastes no time telling an ancillary story. Everything is dedicated towards bringing Watney home, and all of the triumphs are intellectual. Director Ridley Scott may not have taken many risks with the subject matter or the style of the film, but his hand is nonetheless felt throughout. There are simply so many changes of scenery, quick cuts between Mars and NASA, and editing decisions made for humor that it quickly becomes clear that a lesser director could have seriously flubbed this material and produced a much weaker film.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to watch that movie. We got to see a spectacular treatise on the role of the mind in man’s life and his struggle for survival. We got to see the solidarity that all feel towards someone in peril, and the encouraging spirit that we are capable of displaying when directed towards a noble goal. With The Martian, Scott and his compatriots have reminded us that despite the turmoil erupting in the world around us, respect for the human mind and a compassionate spirit can lift us to the heavens – and bring us back safely.