Ridley Scott’s movie (trailer) based on the runaway best-seller by debut author Andy Weir is a knockout. But then I’m a sucker for stories with a big component of “how to make things work.” The hero of this story, astronaut Mark Watney has to get a lot of things working very fast, when the crew of the ARES III Mission inadvertently strands him on Mars, “the first person to be alone on a whole planet.” Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind when a massive sandstorm threatens the entire crew. Flying debris damages his biotelemetry unit, which registers him as dead. And in the storm, they can’t find his body.
First, he must solve the problems of food and water, long-term, since it will take at least four years until another Mars mission could rescue him, even if NASA knows he’s still alive. Which he has no way of telling them. It’s a test of humanity to put a person in extreme circumstances, and you cannot get any more extreme than the surface of the Red Planet.
Back on Earth, though, eagle-eyed Mars-watchers notice movement on the planet surface and come to an obvious conclusion. The race is then on—against distance, bureaucracy, technological limitations, and the implacable elements of Mars. All I can say is I’m glad I’m not NASA Director Teddy Sanders’s (Jeff Daniels) or his media relations director (Kristen Wiig). Especially strong were the roles of Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (played by Benedict Wong), and ARES III Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Matt Damon is terrific, as always, in the role of Watney. Just the right mix of angst and wit, supported by an excellent script from Drew Goddard. The Martian surface was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan.
I know there are people who believe they don’t like science fiction. To me, movies like this are less about the science and more about the human spirit and how it can engage with the creative mind. The science makes it read “real.” As The Atlantic critic Christopher Orr wrote, “Excellence in cinema is sometimes a singular achievement . . . On other occasions, it’s the result of extraordinary collaboration. The Martian is one of these.”
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%, viewer ratings: 93%.