The most notable thing about Ridley Scott‘s The Martian is how casual it is. It takes place in a near future where NASA has finally trekked to Mars, but there is no sense of gravitas or portent to this detail. It’s just a workaday fact. Like in Scott’s Alien, the astronauts in The Martian are not stoic philosophical avatars, but genial blue-collar working stiffs who converse, joke, and playfully mock one another as they go about their business. Just like real astronaut, really, who tend to be gung-ho pilots rather than intellectuals. They may know in the back of their heads that their mission costs billions of dollars, and that the awesomeness – and dangers – of space are lurking just outside of their space suits, but they don’t ever acknowledge that. Instead, they take the edge off by cracking wise and keeping their heads down. If we thought about the infinite deity of space 24 hours a day, our minds would snap.
It’s that lighthearted attitude that allows The Martian to excel not just as an entertainment, but as a profound statement on the power of good humor. Matt Damon plays astronaut/botanost Mark Watney who is, through a set of disastrous circumstances, stranded on Mars while his teammates go merrily floating back to Earth. A return mission is due in four years. Luckily, Watney is so clear-headed and good-natured, that he immediately sets to work creating water, setting up a hydroponics bay, and learning to survive for several years on the surface of a distant planet. Watney occasionally reveals hints of distress – Damon is masterful about letting a few cracks show without breaking down entirely – but his first instinct is to solve the problem immediately in front of him whilst cracking wise. We like watching him, and don’t mind spending so much time with him alone, because he’s such an affable and capable fellow.
In addition, The Martian is, for the astronomy nerds in the audience, incredibly scientifically accurate. This is no mere space fantasy, but is – as the term goes – hard sci-fi. Every problem is a real one, and every solution is based on careful calculations: How much food will I need to last x number of days? How can I communicate with Earth? How can I get more life out of my rover battery? How long does it actually take to travel from one planet to another? This film is a stickler for the details. Unlike the exhilarating and panicked Gravity, which was visually excellent but scientifically iffy, The Martian wants to make damn sure you know it’s getting the minutiae right.
And while that may make the film sound like a dry procedural, it actually gives The Martian much of its narrative immediacy. We see a problem, and we marvel at Watney’s ability to solve it. The stakes rise, and eventually the simple problem-solving has to give way to bold theatrical heroics. By then, however, the audience has been so charmed, the intellect so stimulated, and the tension so skillfully ratcheted up, that The Martian becomes a proper heart-pounder of the highest order. Plus, to make sure the scope of this disaster is felt across the globe, we do get the Irwin Allen portions of the film, wherein a broad cast of recognizable actors panic back on Earth. These portions are just as genial as the astronaut portions, however, and actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, and Kristin Wiig all pull their own weight. Not a breath is wasted.
Over the years, Ridley Scott has lost much of his credibility as a filmmaker with a long string of heady, unattractive slog movies, and is at best an inconsistent director. I have trouble with his ugly historical battlements (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings), and his character pieces usually fall apart under his emotional stiff-arming (Matchstick Men, Body of Lies, the truly repellant The Counselor). With The Martian, Scott has proved that he can make a taut thriller with likable human characters, a solid structure, and some genuine themes of simple good-natured tenacious humanity. It’s pretty damned airtight.