Even though we have learned a lot about Mars since the Viking 1 lander touched down on its surface in 1976, our red neighbor planet still remains as intriguing and mysterious as many other distant places in our solar system we have not visited yet. While several subsequent space probe missions including the Mars Space Laboratory mission during 2011-2 looked deeper into Mars for more information and knowledge, we often wonder about whether we will actually go there someday – and how it will really feel like being there.
Based on the SF novel of the same name by Andy Weir, “The Martian” goes forward with that enduring curiosity of ours. While its story is essentially a classic tale of survival with many familiar elements, it is a very compelling one with enough ideas and substances to intrigue and thrill us none the less. What will happen if one happens to be stranded alone on Mars during a manned mission? Will there be enough possibility for survival and rescue? And what can possibly be done for increasing the chance for that, in spite of many inherent obstacles in that difficult situation?
The story begins in the middle of a manned mission to Mars by NASA in the near future. When the astronauts of the Ares III mission are going through their 18th day (or 18th sol, to be precisely) on a wide plain area named Acidalia Planitia, a huge sandstorm suddenly comes upon their area, and Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the commander of the mission, decides that they should evacuate from their mission station for their safety before the sandstorm gets far worse.
Unfortunately, during their hurried evacuation process, Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets himself knocked out by a flying object and then blown away from his colleagues by the sandstorm. Because they get no signal from Watney’s spacesuit, Lewis and others assume that he is already dead, so they immediately leave Mars and then head for the Earth. As they are returning, the incident is reported to the mission control center in Houston, Texas, and then we see Watney’s funeral being held as the whole nation (and planet, probably) mourns for his death.
However, it turns out Watney manages to survive the sandstorm, and he soon sees how daunting his current circumstance is. The mission station is still working with the handy supply of oxygen and water for him, but then there are a number of big problems in front of him. For instance, there is a substantial amount of food supply left behind in the mission station, but he will run out of it even before 6 months no matter how much he tries to save it, and he knows it too well that he will have to survive for more than a year while waiting for any chance of rescue. Although the computers and other equipments in and around the mission station are mostly fine, the communication lines are cut off due to the sandstorm, and he also cannot go very far from his shelter mainly because of a technical limit of his Mars rover.
Like Robinson Crusoe or the resourceful hero of “Cast Away” (2000), Watney deals with these imminent problems and others step by step. The adapted screenplay by Drew Goddard keeps its plot rolling with Watney’s slow but promising progress while occasionally throwing unexpected troubles to maintain the constant level of tension. Watney happens to find a pack of potatoes, and, as a qualified botanist, he devises a clever way to establish a proper environment for growing them on the soils of Mars. With this reliable source of food, he becomes more confident and hopeful as focusing further on his survival, but that does not change the fact that his life on Mars is very fragile to say the least. Without his spacesuit, he will die within minutes in the thin atmosphere mostly consisting of carbon dioxide (it is more than 100 times thinner than the Earth’s atmosphere). At one point, he finds himself being barely protected from the outside only by a thin plastic membrane, ropes, and duct tapes, and that is more than enough for us to see how things can go quite wrong for him at any moment.
In the meantime, we cannot help but behold the barren beauty of those vast desert landscapes of Mars. While there are some unrealistic aspects to notice in their visual presentation (the sandstorms in Mars are actually not as harsh as depicted in the film, for instance), they certainly look more convincing than what we previously saw from other SF films about Mars including “Total Recall” (1990) and “Red Planet” (2000). I was amused to notice one of Mars’s two moons during one certain wise shot of Mars viewed from space, and, as far as I could see, it is Phobos considering its rather round shape.
The movie also looks around the situation on the other side, and we see how a group of NASA officials and technicians respond to their urgent situation not so far from “Apollo 13” (1995). After discovering that Watney is well and alive on Mars, the mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) are determined to rescue their stranded astronaut as soon as possible, while their calm, unflappable boss Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) often disagrees with them as a cool realist. They must hurry indeed, but, as many of you know, they cannot just shoot a rocket without any preparation. Even when they conflict with each other, they are well aware of that they may see the worst moment of NASA if they are not very careful about each step they are going to take.
As we get more involved in what is at stakes for Watney and other NASA people, the movie shows its sense of humor at times. Some of its humorous moments are very funny in fact while never disrupting the dramatic tension in the story. The occasional juxtaposition of the disco songs from the 1970s (they are Lewis’s favorite songs, by the way) and the landscapes of Mars surprisingly works better than expected with droll effects to tickle you, and I also enjoyed a small deadpan moment involved with a young NASA engineer nervously proposing a risky but feasible rescue plan to his bosses.
As the center of the film, Matt Damon earnestly carries the film in one of the best performances in his career. Like Sandra Bullock in “Gravity” (2013), he effectively functions as an emotional anchor we can hold on throughout the film, and we come to root for Watney as he struggles for his survival by any means available around him. Although we do not know much about him besides his professionalism, it is always fun to watch a professional using his knowledge and intelligence to handle matters to be taken care of, and Damon is excellent when he is required to convey the risks his character must take in his survival maneuvers.
The other recognizable actors in the film dutifully fill their respective roles without stepping out of the line. Jessica Chastain is both gentle and commanding with a suitable aura of authority, and she and her co-performers Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie have a good scene together when their characters all agree on doing the right thing which may end their careers in one way or another. Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, and Chiwetel Ejiofor bring some personality to their archetype characters, and they do more than looking worried or frustrated in front of those many monitors and consoles in their mission control room.
Though he disappointed us with “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014) in last year, the director Ridley Scott, who will soon have his 78th Birthday in the next month, is back in his element here in this film. Since his debut work “The Duelists” (1977), he has gone around many different genres during last 38 years, but he has been usually remembered for “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982), two great SF films with each own visceral visual moments to strike and haunt you. “Prometheus” (2012), one of his recent films which was intended as a prequel to “Alien”, is not as great as them, but there are terrific space scenes which took me back to the memories of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and I came to forgive its several visible shortcomings.
While it is not as ambitious or groundbreaking as “Gravity” and “Interstellar” (2014), “The Martian” is a superb hard SF film to recommend. Like many SF fictions about space and its wonders, it reminds us of how tiny our existence is in the universe – and that how we can reach further into it if we want. It still creeps me out to think about going to where nobody can hear me scream, but who can deny its wonders?