The Martian is a thrilling endeavor exploring the horrific consequences of a man stranded alone on Mars with the only available help literally years away. One part Moon, one part Cast Away, shaken lightly with a dash of Gravity and served with a garnish of humor, the film is an enjoyable treat treading beyond the realm of despair that could have easily overtaken it into something else entirely – an intriguing character study of the human spirit.
Set in the near future, the film kicks things off full throttle when a storm forces a team of astronauts to evacuate a Martian expedition stranding the thought-dead Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a doctor of botany, on the planet. With limited supplies, no initial means of communication, and the only possible help four years away, Watney scrambles to survive by “sciencing the shit” out of the situation. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA Chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and engineering specialist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggle to find a way save him whilst avoiding a PR nightmare.
Well-paced and streamlined while only a tad overlong, what is most surprising about The Martian is that it is genuinely funny. Containing more laughs than most comedies released this year, the film strikes a perfect balance between humor and drama. Highlights include Watney’s profanity laden candor which hit the threshold of what is currently permitted in a PG-13 film. Taking a cue from Guardians of the Galaxy, the film’s soundtrack is full of classic disco, much to chagrin of Watney who’s left to endure with a limited music library containing songs by ABBA and Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” – a fate perhaps more frigid than the surface of the planet.
Director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus) brings his A-game, delivering his best motion picture in years. Most significantly, the film lives and breathes almost entirely on the performance of Matt Damon as he strives to find a solution and keep a cool head to every overwhelming impediment that comes his way such as extending his food rations by building the first farm on the planet or performing self-surgery after a particularly grueling injury (a trait Ridley Scott seems to inject into a few of his films). By having Watney self-narrate his actions through frequent video diaries, we are allowed to get into his head and follow along with every step of his undertaking which is frequently peppered by his ruminations about his crew-mates or other hilarious anecdotes which I won’t spoil here (one pertaining to maritime law, for example, is especially amusing).
Although the film does drag a bit during an extended earth-bound sequence in its second act, it serves only as a testament to how captivating Damon’s performance and actions on Mars are. With incredible special effects, jaw-dropping landscapes, and a strong supporting cast, The Martian is not only one of the best films of the year but one of the best true science fiction enterprises of the decade.