He gave us Blade Runner and Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Thelma and Louise. But the past 15 years have been pretty lean for the 77-year-old 3-time Oscar nominee. His last three pictures, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor, and Prometheus made their money back, but left his fans (and critics) wondering if his touch had faded for good.
Like Gravity two years ago, The Martian capitalizes spectacularly on how far the film industry has come in its special effects capabilities. Both films seamlessly place the audience in outer space, never for an instance stretching credibility.
The Martian takes it to the next level by stranding astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on Mars, where he and his crew are overtaken by a sudden storm, forcing them to abort their mission. While exiting, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and is left for dead by the expedition commander (played with usual grace by Jessica Chastain).
Initially, the story focuses very effectively on Watney’s ability to take his skills as a botanist and map out an exact schedule/strategy to make his food supply last until he can be rescued.
This plan only lasts so long. All things under the microscope, he is not going to survive.
What follows is an impressive progression of highly scientific, often mathematical, decisions, alternatives, and equations bandied about in order to devise a seemingly impossible strategy to retrieve Watney from the Red Planet.
The ultimate question: What price is too high to rescue one man?
“I’m trying to keep our space program up in the air,” NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) explains to his expedition director, played by Sean Bean. “It’s bigger than one man.”
“No it isn’t,” replies Bean.
And that is the heart that pounds heavy throughout The Martian. One life does matter. Or you could extrapolate that further…all lives matter. We are, after all, created in God’s image.
Damon is excellent in this role. As is the entire cast.
The surprise in the equation is that the film’s screenplay was written by Drew Goddard, known mostly for his work on Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spinoff hit, Angel.
I can’t imagine either of those efforts prepared him for tackling this subject, although collaborating with and learning from Whedon certainly couldn’t hurt.
Based on the book by Andy Weir, Goddard’s script is jam-packed with analytical data, both scientific and mathematical, combined with thoughtful and witty dialogue exchanges, keeping the film clipping along at a well-constructed pace.
One more note about this special film: Early in the picture when Damon’s Watney is passing time on Mars, he puts his feet up to enjoy some television. What does he watch? None other than the iconic 1970’s Happy Days, the show that brought us Ron Howard’s unforgettably squeaky clean Richie Cunningham.
It is impossible to watch The Martian and not be reminded of Howard’s Apollo 13. Scott choosing Happy Days as the one show Watney watches in his solitude is a direct nod to the superlative NASA template Howard turned in 20 years earlier.
The Martian is storytelling at its very best. An edge of your seat collaborative effort, meshing an excellent cast with a superb script in the hands of a director who knows well enough to put all of his resources on the table and let the magic unfold.