Survival, Matt Damon’s character will tell the audience in a scene from the new Ridley Scott film The Martian, is a question of problem solving. You solve one problem — do the math, do the legwork — and you move on to the next. And when you’ve solved enough of them, you get to live a little bit longer.
The Martian is a grand example of what you might call a “movie movie.” That is to say, a movie which doesn’t much have a reason to exist beyond being a damn good slice of Hollywood entertainment. There’s no political message, no deep personal meditation. You could call it an advertisement for the benefits of science, space travel, and education, but that’s really not the answer. That’s more like the numbers that are left over as a remainder from a division problem. No, The Martian is little more than good, emotionally moving, supremely entertaining Hollywood spectacle: part science fair project, part roller coaster ride, part one-man-comedy-show. If this sounds like shallow diversion not worthy of valorization, think again. Because it’s a hard, hard math problem to solve: take an audience inundated with CGI and special effects and perhaps already suffering from a case of Astronaut Movie Fatigue, add two and a half hours of runtime, and try to find out what’s the missing variable that will end up equaling a satisfied and electrified audience.
The Martian solves that problem, just about completely.
Sometime in the not-so-distant future, a NASA manned mission to Mars is cut short after a storm strikes their lab site, forcing the astronauts to abandon their mission and return to Earth prematurely. In their wake, they tearfully leave behind crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who died in a sudden accident during the evacuation.
Only he didn’t die.
Mark Watney, presumed dead, stuck as far away from the Earth as any man or woman can be, and with no immediate way of contacting NASA, is a futuristic Robinson Crusoe, forced to figure out how to survive and how to keep his sanity with nothing but the disco records left behind by mission commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain, getting in on a little of the space action she missed out on in Interstellar). Back on Earth, NASA head honcho Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and chief scientist Dr. Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gradually learn Watney’s true status, and try to figure out a way to keep him alive long enough for Watney to come home on the next planned Mars mission, still four years away. And all the while, with the eyes of the world turned to NASA and Watney, the crew, led by Lewis are being deceived by their superiors at mission control.
This is cracking good stuff. While 2013’s Gravity took a minimal approach: two characters, shot in realtime; and 2014’s Interstellar aimed at being an epic of generational and interdimensional proportions; The Martian takes a three-layered tactic. On Mars you have Matt Damon, alone. He speaks directly to the camera, in the form of Watney keeping data logs of his survival process. In the Ares spaceship, the five-person crew slowly becomes aware of the complexity of what is going on; survivor’s guilt turns to sociable banter, which eventually turns to steely purpose when they end up playing a crucial part in the rescue efforts. And back on Earth, NASA’s nerd armada of officials and scientists navigates a storm of media frenzy and frantic efforts to save their lost man before he runs out of food and water.
So, who knew that Ridley Scott could be funny? Seriously. If you’re one of the people who thought A Good Year was at all funny, then I’m glad your read my work, Mr. Crowe, but I think you should recognize you’re in a minority on this one. Anyway, director Scott, at 77 years old still turning out roughly a film a year, shows a surprising aptitude for balancing the right level of humor for this project without forgetting the human stakes involved. In one early scene, Matt Damon basically becomes the human equivalent of Daffy Duck when he hastily celebrates lighting a small fire, only to have the fire literally blow up in his face. The next shot is Damon, comically charred, and feathers — I mean, hair — tousled by the blast, opining that mayyyybe he was a little too eager to count his chickens. Yet despite the laughs this scene garners, it’s still clear and evident and felt that the explosion does, in fact, represent a problem for Watney’s survival. There is humor to Watney’s blunders, just as there is dignity in his successes.
Okay, so one essential part of the equation is the humor. Interstellar was deadly serious — the most humorous character being a robot with “humor replication” settings — and Gravity occasionally had the forced, hacky sitcom lines like “I hate space.” Here though, the humor organically grows from the plot. After all, when you think about it, the idea that NASA could spend billions of dollars and countless time and resources to bring a man 140 million miles from the Earth, only to abandon him in the course of two minutes — that’s pretty funny. I mean, not all that funny if you’re the abandoned guy, but pretty funny nonetheless.
What else is a key part of solving the problem? It’s Matt Damon. Recent tone deaf comments aside, Damon is a great movie star, and this is a great movie star performance. So what does that mean, exactly? The closest definition I can come up with is that a movie star performance is a performance where the character being played has — on paper — few characteristics other than that their actions drive the plot, and whose role in the film is to connect that character to the audience emotionally and viscerally. Mark Watney is not a particular complex man, from what we see. We know nothing of his backstory. We don’t know whether he’s mourning a dead loved one, like Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. We don’t know if he’s ever been in space before this mission. We don’t know his sexual orientation, and boilerplate love stories are nowhere to be found. We surmise that he’s not married based solely on the fact that no one ever says anything about him being married. We eventually learn he has parents, but I think we could have safely assumed that no matter what. Mark Watney doesn’t seem to have a dark side, or a shameful secret, or a spiritual insecurity. Even his fellow crew members, still feeling remorseful about leaving him behind, don’t comment on his personality or individuality beyond the fact that they need to get him back.
No, all we know about Mark Watney is what he does. He is character as defined solely by his series of actions. A character like this could, at worst, be a complete cipher, a soulless automaton who acts solely because their actions move along the plot. But in the hands of Matt Damon, Watney feels fully real and fully lived-in. There is a casual quality to Damon’s performance that is crucial. We really do feel like this is a guy who has had to live by himself, provide for himself, and amuse himself all this time. There isn’t much restraint, or much visible tension in his performance, and this is precisely its strength. In this film, Damon reminds me of that old saying, that “actors are actors, not reactors.”
The rest of the cast is across-the-board tremendous as well. Scott has assembled a top notch cast who get to riff in their own particular tone and key. In addition to the cast members already mentioned above, notice should go to Donald Glover, playing an off-kilter scientist in the “Dr. Jeff Goldblum” mold; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA desk worker who, to her surprise, becomes essential to the rescue mission, and Benedict Wong, as a NASA engineer who seems so real I briefly wondered if Scott had cast an actual rocket scientist to play him.
So far, we’ve got surprising sense of humor added to warm movie star lead, combined with strong cast. But the problem could not be completed without the fine, fine work of the digital effects team, who have simply gone above and beyond with this film. I am a bit of a CGI-skeptic, I’ll confess. I’ll see a blatantly CGI-ed establishing shot, or a blatantly CGI-ed “animal,” and I’ll roll my eyes. Computer effects rarely manage to equal the tactile qualities of practical effects. By biggest issue with this is when modern films use CGI as a crutch when the effect could often so clearly be done with more impact by the real deal, or a practical effect. Yet in this film, the CGI landscaping is absolutely necessary and totally convincing.
Full disclosure, I have never been to Mars. So maybe there are native Martians watching The Martian and thinking to themselves, “Ugh, they got the geography all wrong — Matt Damon’s on 105th Street in this scene, then he steps to the side and he’s on 44th street!” But as a typical provincial earthling, I must say that this film seems to be spot-on. It was largely filmed in Budapest’s Korda Studios, but also the desert valleys of Jordan, and it is clear to any rational adult that CGI must have been used in all of those locations, but I could not tell you where one ended and the other began. The effect is virtually seamless and director Ridley Scott should be praised for knowing just when to employ location shooting, just when to deploy studio-bound shooting, and when to utilize the computers.
All of this factors into a genuine Hollywood spectacle that is quite good at solving its potential problems; so good, in fact, that it makes this year’s other “blockbusters” look like just what they are: the cinematic equivalent of going through a quiz and simply filling in “C” for all your answers.