The Martian

photo Before I begin, I need to address the giant floating astronaut elephant in the room. About a month ago, as I was feverishly racing to finish the book “The Martian,” by Andy Weir, upon which the movie, The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, is based on, I found myself excitedly talking it up to friends, both because I was finding the book to be riveting and the advanced buzz on the film from movie bloggers who had seen it to be incredibly strong. It turns out, however, that no matter my excitement about the book, nor the critical praise about the film could get my friends past one simple thing: they felt they’d seen this before. As in last year before. The most common response, when I gave them the quick, one-sentence description of the story, was, “wow, sounds like Gravity.” Next most-heard response? “Wasn’t Matt Damon just stranded on a planet in Interstellar?”

So, before I go any deeper, let me just get this out here and now: The Martian is not Gravity. Nor is it Interstellar. The only things these movies have in common is space and, in the case of Interstellar, a couple of actors and one particular plot point. Well, ok. It’s a pretty big plot point, and Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain are pretty hard to ignore, especially when they are the rescued and the rescuer, respectively, in both movies, but, not being able to enjoy both movies, just because they share genres and actors, is like saying you won’t see Casino because you already saw Goodfellas.

Not only is The Martian a far different movie from both Gravity and Interstellar, but most people reading this will love The Martian much more than both of those movies combined. It is neither too cerebral nor too ambitious for its own good (or for its audience) and it is a genuine popcorn flick that makes you almost even forget that divisive term that makes some run screaming for the exits: SCI-FI. In fact, where The Martian really separates itself from every other space movie is in its groundedness, i.e. its constant grasp of things we can relate to, as opposed to all that fantastical, alien, outer-spacey stuff from the genre that non-fans usually hate. Maybe The Martian is the first film in its own genre: Science Non-Fiction?

So what exactly is The Martian about? Well, NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) has managed to get himself stranded on Mars during a research expedition, through no fault of his own or his crew (led by Commander Chastain). During a freak accident, the crew believes Mark to be killed, so they take off without him, only to be told by NASA months later that he’s still alive. Meanwhile, Mark has to figure out how to survive on Mars alone until NASA can figure out how to save or rescue him.

The good thing about Mark—and here’s the power of The Martian—is the fact that he is a true scientist—not a superhero—and he goes about his survival in all the most logical of ways. I’m telling you, The Martian is a nerd’s dream, there is so much science here—and so much more in the book—it ought to inspire kids to become scientists just as much as The Right Stuff inspired them to be astronauts (we hope).

As a movie—as entertainment—it is stellar. It rockets along with the same brisk pace as the book (although it leaves out some key sequences from the book that I found myself really missing), and stayed as loyal to the text as I’ve ever seen. The story was captivating on the page and it’s just as captivating on the screen, and you just can’t help but get sucked into this guy’s plight. There’s just something so unifying about the concept of one human stuck alone OUT THERE. It may sound hokey, but this movie never actually plays hokey, and that’s another one of its strengths. It plays hope and optimism and humanity, but it never goes for cheesy. Much of that has to be attributed to director Ridley Scott, as professional and expert a hand there is. As solid a directorial effort as this is, however, I was surprised at the lack of any true cinematic style. It’s hard to believe this is the best outer space movie we can get now from the visionary director of Alien and Blade Runner. But, again, The Martian does not call for nor does it need any high-powered effects to be, well, effective. The success of this movie is in the story of one man’s survival and smarts—not necessarily in that order. It turns out it can be very compelling to root for someone against all odds. And there really aren’t longer odds against you than being stuck alone on a planet millions of miles away.

And then there’s Matt Damon. Tom Hanks was the perfect guy to make you cry when he said goodbye to a volleyball, and now Matt Damon is the perfect guy to make you feel some semblance of hope for humanity and even more regret for not having paid more attention during 10th grade Bio-chem class. Director Scott knew he would be the perfect actor for this role in The Martian because Damon blends the perfect mix of All-American charm, masculinity, strength, wit, vulnerability, likeability and believable smarts (Damon did go to Harvard) and Damon hits every note perfectly. Although there is a cast of thousands here in support—a famous thousands—this is Damon’s movie, and he makes the most of it.

Overall, The Martian will not disappoint, no matter who you are or what movie you are looking for—or think you will be getting. Ignore genre, all you need to know is this is a compelling story with great actors that will hold your interest and just might move you—to learn, to feel, to look up to the sky. No matter what, it’s 2 hours well worth your time here on Earth.