Remember the great scene in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 where, desperate to find a way to save stranded astronauts in a failing spaceship, NASA engineers are presented with a box of spare parts and told to figure out how those fit together as a makeshift solution? The Martian is that scene for over two hours. In its opening sequence the first astronauts on Mars evacuate the planet during a sandstorm that knocks one of their crewmates off the medical signals and into the deadly dusty darkness. They think he’s dead and leave him behind, where he wakes up alone and afraid with a desolate lifeless planet all to himself. He has to find a way to make 60 days worth of supplies last up to four years, the time it could take to get someone back to pick him up. And that’s only if he can make contact with Earth sooner rather than later.
It’s a surprisingly absorbing experience to watch one man think his way through complicated story problems. Sure, it’s the sort of mystery that’s impossible to think through faster than the characters on screen. But there’s a certain convincing popcorn logic to the whole string of science thought experiments presented for our Robinson Crusoe on Mars in a relatively hard sci-fi premise. No alien twists or sudden water-filled oasis on the horizon, he can only stay in the pressurized makeshift lab or wander out with his spacesuit to scavenge whatever mechanical bits he can to make his unexpected extended stay survivable. Though it wouldn’t be hard to root for anyone’s survival in that situation, it helps that he’s played by Matt Damon, a likable enough presence on screen, equivalent to stranding peak James Stewart or Tom Hanks. He’s corn-fed Americana aw-shucks smart, putting one foot in front of the other.
We watch as he tries to power his life support systems, grow crops, and phone home. Back on Earth his NASA colleagues (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, Donald Glover) quickly notice movement in satellite photos and start working on ways to get in touch, and get him back. In between are his traveling crewmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie), unaware the man they’re mourning is alive and might be calling on them to help, too. All those actors are great, believable in their competence and drive, with great timing delivering complicated dialogue. It’s one of those big Hollywood ensembles where the characters are the sum total of their job descriptions (their titles pop up on screen at each intro) and the recognizable faces are meant to fill in the unspoken rest. No one has time for backstory, personal problems, or emotional appeals. There’s not even a token villain. It’s all can-do cooperation and high-stakes business.
I’m sure the armchair rocket scientists in the crowd could still quibble with the results, but at least the filmmakers have a nuts and bolts commitment to showing their work. The characters walk through each new option or development with lots of technobabble patter and math lab/science center jargon, talking through variables, calculations, and equations, triangulating timetables and press releases while weighing the needs of the many with the needs of the few. This could be dull, especially in the relentless exposition and talky narration cutting down on potential poetry of space flight and lonely unearthly vistas of red-tinted desert. But what makes it work is the crisp tick tock editing, cutting for suspense and propulsion between people crowding around computers and white boards and the lonely plight of the one man they’re mobilizing brainpower to save.
Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods) has adapted Andy Weir’s book into a screenplay balancing determined problem solving, often clever and surprising, with a mild but charming wit cutting through the heavy material. It’s not glib banter. It’s the light needling and gallows humor of serious smart people who are good at their jobs, but feeling the pressure. It plays into director Ridley Scott’s interest in world building, process, data displays, and men on missions, allowing him to turn this Cast Away meets Gravity by way of Randall Munroe's What If? into something his own, an easily tense space survival story, even if the end is not once in doubt. The Martian has some visual overlap with his Alien/Prometheus world in cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s unfussy 3D views of production designer Arthur Max’s functional worn-down tech and austere sand-swept Mars terrain. But Scott also has relaxed fun with it, making amusing tension out of, say, Damon struggling to duct tape a depressurizing suit shut, or finding room for a fun disco soundtrack. It’s an efficient and entertaining workmanlike brainteaser of a movie.