Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is the kind of blockbuster that is a welcome outlier after a summer of big budget superhero and action movies. It’s an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining piece of science fiction that values human drama and humor to engage the audience, instead of resorting to special effects and explosions.
One might go as far as to call it a love letter to science and NASA. Anchored by a strong performance by Matt Damon and an emphasis on genuine, palpable thrills, “The Martian” is something special. After Mark Watney (Damon) is presumed dead and left behind on Mars after a mission goes wrong, it’s revealed that he’s alive and must learn to survive while NASA tries to bring him home.
Now it is up to Watney to formulate a plan to survive for as long as possible in a base that isn’t built for such extreme measures. What transpires is a one-man survivor tale led by a charismatic and humorous performance by Damon. The weight of the entire film rests on his shoulders, and he nails it. Thanks to a sharp script by Drew Goddard, Damon is great in his comic timing and delivery of jokes that feel very sporadic and organic (particularly when he almost leaves his base without his helmet after giving himself a self-empowering speech), rather than one-liners that feel like a screenwriter, and not a character, came up with.
Damon excels when it comes to the mental and physical turbulence that his character is faced with. Sudden outbursts of rage don’t come off as forced, and his quieter moments of despair and self doubt evoke empathy that results in one of Damon’s best performances in recent memory.
As for the supporting cast, it’s uneven. Jessica Chastain is stellar as an intelligent commander and Michael Pena is both funny and sympathetic. On the other hand, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie aren’t given much to work with material-wise, and their roles come across as filler; they’re just there when this needs to be repaired or that needs to be explained. As for the NASA crew back home, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels are rock solid as heads at NASA, while others like Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig are thin and underdeveloped.
The bulk of “The Martian” is watching Watney adjust to life on a planet using nothing but science and his wits. Watching him set up his own farming system in his base using old feces from his crew is both engaging and hilarious. Watney also has a tendency to make video logs and talk to himself to give the audience an idea of what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling. Scott and Goddard thrive on these little, yet significant scenarios that make “The Martian” feel intimate and meaningful. And its race-against-the-clock type of finale is breathtaking, despite a five-minute detour on Earth, which awkwardly precedes this moment. “The Martian” is a breath of fresh air. It’s a real crowd pleaser and one that anyone can get back behind, thanks to its blend of drama, thrills and humor.