‘The Martian’ Does the Math

Ridley Scott’s futuristic lost astronaut epic strings a series of logic puzzles through a lighthearted ensemble dramedy that feels equal parts The Avengers and Gravity.

Whatever happened to Ridley Scott? Since Gladiator 15 years ago, he’s been Hollywood’s go-to director for big, R-rated spectacle films featuring men with stubble and oodles of slow motion bloodshed. Even when Scott is called upon to resuscitate an familiar saga, like Robin Hood in 2010, he underlines its seriousness, a tack that might seem grim or maybe just padding according to the historical “record”. And the less said about the enervating and opportunistic Prometheus, the better.

And yet… with his new movie, The Martian, Scott sloughs off all the baggage and strikes out for brighter climes. The story doesn’t immediately lend itself to this turn. In a time just far enough in the future for interplanetary travel to be possible, but not far enough for new technology to fix every problem, NASA has landed a manned mission on Mars. When a sudden storm kicks up, the team is forced to evacuate, leaving behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), whom they believe to be dead. Waking up half-buried in a sand dune, Watney faces one of those unfixable problems.

At a minimum, it’s going to be four years until the next planned Mars mission arrives. Until then, he has to figure out how to live on a planet without a breathable atmosphere, and in shelter designed to last only a month, where no plant life can grow. At the same time, the film reminds us, the other members of his crew proceed on their months-long journey back to earth.

Based on Andy Weir’s online serial (which he revised as a bestselling novel), The Martian is primarily a series of logic puzzles for Watney — and now the film — to solve. Since he doesn’t have anybody else to talk to, he records a video log “for the record”. It’s a handy plot device — thankfully there is no adorable or snarky artificial intelligence with whom he might gab — that could easily have gone south.

But Watney, a botanist with the attitude of an ace fighter pilot, is at once cocksure, witty, and chatty, as when he vows, “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.” Imbued with Damon’s rare ability to exude confidence without edging into smarm, Watney steadily walks us through each predicament, telling his video recorder, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” He graduates from food production to power sources to telling Earth, “Hey, not dead.”

That message eventually reaches home, where Watney’s fellows provide the other part of this terrific ensemble pieces. While he scratches away in an all too fragile shelter, the usual gaggle of bloodless bureaucrats and eager engineers at NASA is gaming out how to keep him alive until their next craft gets there, as well as when they’re going to tell his still oblivious crew-mates (including Jessica Chastain and Michael Pena). The earthbound cast is divertingly random, from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s driven Mars mission chief to Kristen Wiig’s annoyed PR flack, Jeff Daniels’ snarky NASA director, and Donald Glover’s pratfalling ultra-nerd. They’re so entertaining that you might begin to wonder whether the whole thing is going to turn into a disaster flick. With the exception of a seemingly bored Daniels, though, everybody dives in and hurls the story forward with barely a whiff of cheese.

The Martian fits these many players together as neatly as the interlocking pieces of Drew Goddard’s script. Pivoting from epic adventure to light comedy, the movie draws from the sort of characters’ interplay that keeps the better Marvel films from imploding and also the grand awe and terror that comes from contemplating the solitude of the cosmos. By summoning his lighter side, Scott has ironically created a thrilling adventure tale that resonates more deeply than most of his purportedly more serious work.

RATING 7 / 10