For most of the year, I've felt this has been an okay, but not great year for movies. It's not that I haven't seen stuff that I liked, but it's more that there's been very little that blew me away. The summer movie season had the expected duds, but even there, we saw a lot of entries that ended up being described as competent. In retrospect, it's appropriate that blockbuster season was kicked off by AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, a film that was a perfectly serviceable blockbuster, while not accomplishing much in the way of emotional engagement. (Not that I won't take that over a TERMINATOR: GENISYS.)
THE MARTIAN is the first film in a while where I felt truly emotionally engaged with the story. I think INSIDE OUT was the last new release to accomplish that for me, and for that, we have to reach back to June. Matt Damon plays an astronaut named Mark Watney who's presumed dead when his flight crew has to evacuate Mars in the middle of a storm. As it turns out, he's very much alive and can't expect another mission to rescue him for four years. Oh, and there's the small matter of how he doesn't have a direct communication line to NASA to tell them he's still alive in the first place.
On top of that, his rations will run out well before any rescue, which means he has to somehow figure out a way to grow crops on a planet with no oxygen. But then you have to consider the challenge of getting enough water to cultivate the crops, and even then, it's probably at best a temporary solution.... you get the point.
I don't want to get too much into the specifics of the plot turns of THE MARTIAN, because the joy of this movie is in the unexpected nature of the obstacles Watney faces. I've seen comparisons thrown around to GRAVITY and CASTAWAY, but for me, the movie this most reminded me of was APOLLO 13. There's an entire side story about NASA becoming aware that Watney is alive, which leads to entire sequences of them figuring out how to communicate back and forth.
I don't want to deprive readers of the surprises that await as Damon's character struggles for survival, but Drew Goddard's script is an excellent study in how every time it seems like Watney finally has a handle on things and his crazy plan just might work, he gets thrown an obstacle that sends him back to square one or further. This is not a movie that's afraid to beat up its characters a bit. Goddard and director Ridley Scott are masterful at giving the audience just enough hope so that it's devastating when those hopes are dashed.
During my time as a reader, I saw a great many scripts by amateurs where they clearly were too kind to their characters. You could feel the writers holding back on being too rough on them. It's a natural impulse in some ways - once we fall in love with our characters we become protective of them - but it can make for strained drama.
A good rule of thumb in film is that if we're explained a plan in painstaking detail, it's a good bet that when the rubber meets the road, things will not go to plan. The way things NEED to happen is laid out for us so that when we're in the thick of it, we'll having that "oh shit!" reaction as things come apart. The climax of THE MARTIAN executes this wonderfully. We're presented with an extremely dicey plan of operation - then we're immediately hit with challenges to that plan before they even execute it.
Once we're through that layer of resolution, our characters are faced with the challenge of just getting ready for that plan. I always think about the climax of BACK TO THE FUTURE, where Doc Brown has set up so many moving parts that are necessary for Marty to reach the wire at the exact second that the lightning bolt is funneled into the flux capacitor. We're told - twice, really - exactly how things must fall into place for the 1.21 gigawatts to end up where they belong. Marty and Doc are hit with several obstacles - including a tree that downs one connection between the cables, a car that refuses to start and a lack of slack that makes it a challenge for Doc to fix the cables.
I think it's safe to say that THE MARTIAN seems to throw twice as many obstacles at its characters in its climax. Given the science and the logistics involved, it would be very easy for the audience to get lost in both how things have gone awry and also how the team attempts to fix it. It's not easy to give the audience that level of clarity in a scene that depends on so many concepts that likely feel abstract to the layperson. If you haven't seen the film yet, study these moments during your viewing and appreciate the craft on display.
Other reviewers have remarked on this, but it's nice to see a film that's so pro-science. We're living in a time where NASA has been slashed to the bone and man missions to Mars really are looking like the stuff of science fiction. This is a film that celebrates not only the ingenious work of Watney as he MacGuyver's his way to survival, but the problem-solving of everyone back at NASA as they try to figure out a rescue mission that seemingly can't make it to Mars until long after their target has perished.
It's stirring to see these people given an unsolvable puzzle - one that's fleshed out from several angles - and then figure out an equally complex solution. There are so many variables to every possible course of action, which makes the obstacles feel real and not just convenient roadblocks to be hurdled. Flowing from this, just about all of the conflict is with the environment. We're not given a convenient mustache-twirling villain to hate and see catharticly taken down in the end. The closest we get is Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA and the conflict he generates comes from the "bigger picture" he has to protect rather than any malice. I like movies where reasonable people can hold completely conflicting positions without either of then needing to be vilified in the process.
All of this would not be nearly as effective without Matt Damon. Stranded alone for most of the film ends up making that portion of the movie into a one-man show. Fortunately, a recurring device of having him record video logs gives him a reason to talk to the audience. Even though he's serving up a lot of exposition there, it doesn't feel like a chore to get through. Part of this is because we WANT the explanation. It's pretty obvious this is a challenging situation so we need Watney to work us out of it.
The other half of this equation is the character work. Watney's given a wry sense of humor. I wasn't prepared for how funny this film was in places, and it's not all gallows humor either. It works because at first we see his joking as a defense mechanism - a way to avoid confronting the depressing reality of his problem. In later moments, we see his jokes as a sign of his optimism, maybe even his confidence. Thus, it adds to the gut punches from the setbacks when he's not able to find any humor in a recent complication. And then of course, by the end of the film, his jokes take on a "I can't believe THIS is the best option open to us." The longshot nature of the plan is almost better punctuated by humor than by speeches given a lot of gravity.
As we head into the fall Oscar offerings, I hope that THE MARTIAN is a harbinger of the sorts of intelligent offerings we have ahead of us.