Film Review: The Martian

by Carrie Kahn on October 2, 2015

Scott captures our imagination with riveting survival story

Abandoned astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) checks out his Martian surroundings.

No movie better exemplifies Kurt Vonnegut’s assertion that “science is magic that works” than Ridley Scott’s engaging new film The Martian. Based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, Scott’s picture is less a fantastical science fiction story like his Alien or Blade Runner, and more a pure and utterly gripping survival story, in the vein of pictures like Castaway or even 127 Hours. Only here, our hero isn’t trapped somewhere with the luxury of oxygen like a canyon in Utah or a remote tropical island, but years away from any human help, alone in outer space, on the inhospitable planet Mars.

Our hero is Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a botanist by training, and a member of a NASA team sent to Mars to collect soil samples. When a severe storm hits while the team is out on the surface, Mark’s crew presumes he’s dead after seeing him violently struck by debris. They hurriedly escape the storm and abort the mission, leaving behind what they assume to be Mark’s dead body. Only Mark isn’t dead, and, when he comes to, he realizes his predicament. After removing an impaled antenna from his stomach and stitching himself up (a scene not for the faint of heart), Mark is faced with trying to survive utterly alone on a foreign and hostile planet until he can be rescued by the next NASA mission, scheduled for four years away.

And thus, as in all good survivor movies, we find ourselves rooting for Mark, as well as the NASA ground crew back on Earth, diligently working around the clock to try and get him home (it’s not too much of a spoiler to share that Mark does, eventually, establish contact with NASA). What would we do, we think, as we watch Mark try to grow potatoes using his own human waste as fertilizer. Ah, we think, how ingenious! How smart to know how to make water using fire! (It’s fitting that NASA actually discovered liquid water on Mars the week of this film’s release; if poor Mark had been able to stumble upon that, half his problems would have been solved.)

Astrodynamicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) is the quirky genius with a possible solution.

Indeed, Mark’s extensive knowledge and scientific prowess seem almost limitless, as he proves not just a capable botanist and medic, but also engineer, physicist, mechanic, cryptographer, all-around handy man, and, of course, IT guy. When he tells his NASA colleagues, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” when confronted with a particularly difficult challenge, we can’t help but cheer. In actuality, the true hero of Scott’s film is, without a doubt, human intelligence, perseverance, and ingenuity. As such, this is a terrific film for parents to take kids to to get them inspired by and interested in all kinds of scientific disciplines.

Along those lines, Scott does well in assembling a diverse cast to play his smart and capable astronauts, scientists, and NASA administrative personnel. Jessica Chastain is Commander Lewis, the head of Mark’s mission, and a strong, savvy, and highly intelligent scientist and leader (even if she is partial to disco music, in the film’s only somewhat weak running gag). On the ground, Jeff Daniels, who can play exasperated authority like nobody’s business, is well suited for the role of beleaguered NASA director Teddy Sanders. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Director of Mars Missions, Donald Glover as an eccentric but brilliant astrodynamicist, and Kristen Wiig as NASA’s media relations director all handle the sometimes clunky dialog (Drew Goddard, who, appropriately enough was a screenwriter for TV’s Lost, wrote the screenplay) with aplomb, bringing varying degrees of compassion, frustration, and humanity to their roles.

For stranded astronaut/botanist Watney (Matt Damon), potatoes are on the menu. Indefinitely.

For stranded astronaut/botanist Watney (Matt Damon), potatoes are on the menu. Indefinitely.

And Damon, who is on screen alone for much of the film, often recording a video diary, uses his everyman persona to show us someone facing down unfathomable loneliness and despair, imbuing Mark with a ferocity of spirit and wry sense of humor that make him both relatable and heroic.

But, ultimately, we don’t come to a movie like The Martian for the stellar (no pun intended) acting, even though the actors do fine work. We come for the spectacle and the grandeur, and Scott and his production and visual effects team don’t disappoint. You can see the movie in 3D, but it’s not necessary; there are no aliens jumping out at you here, just vast Martian vistas of brilliant reds and golds — an extraordinary, haunting and beautiful landscape. And the space sequences rival those of 2013’s stranded-in-space epic Gravity, providing us a visceral sense of the confinement of space capsules and the vastness of deep, dark space.

Over 60 years ago, another writer described humans travelling to Mars: “… When the United States shrank to a misted island and the entire planet Earth became a muddy baseball tossed away,” Ray Bradbury wrote in The Martian Chronicles, “then you were alone, wandering in the meadows of space, on your way to a place you couldn’t imagine.” Thanks to Ridley Scott, though, we now can.


The Martian opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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