Science nerds, start your engines. Yes, The Martian—based on a 2011 novel by Andy Weir—is a science fiction adventure from the director of Alien and Blade Runner, but it’s also perhaps the purest ode to science mainstream cinema has ever produced, a love letter to NASA and STEM education.
In the near future, a manned NASA mission to Mars hits a hitch. Believing astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to be killed in a blinding dust storm, the rest of the Ares 3 crew narrowly escapes. But Watney isn’t dead yet, and wakes to discover himself alone on the red planet, 35 million miles from home, four years from the next planned landing, and presumed dead. So he gets to work. “Luckily,” he vlogs, “I’m a botanist.” Watney’s wry self-narration turns out to be part and parcel of a very smart, very witty screenplay by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), which expertly adapts Weir’s Jack London-in-space tale of wilderness survival.
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” Watney quips, and his subsequent one-foot-in-front-of-the-other efforts to feed himself sustainably, prolong battery life, and contact home amount to an ever-refreshing tribute to scientific ingenuity. That’s also true of the film’s three other principal settings: the Hermes, the vessel carrying the Ares 3 crew home; Johnson Space Center in Houston, where director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) makes the tough calls; and Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, which gets recruited to join the effort to save Watney once it’s discovered he’s alive and potentially rescuable.
The sprawling, top-notch cast also includes the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña, Donald Glover, and Kristin Wiig, but the real stars are Damon, in a typically committed performance that leans on the real-life charm regularly tamped down in his screen roles, and Scott, who tamed a logistically complex production with no signs of strain (though the often dim look and 3D conspire for some occasional eye strain). Though the running time is long, and the viewer will feel it at times, that’s essential to the storytelling, which succeeds at being tight, sometimes taut, and frequently funny (if a little cute-sy when it comes to the disco music that’s all Damon’s left with on the Mars base).
Ultimately, The Martian may be the best advertisement NASA ever had (and you bet they cooperated), when it comes to garnering interest, enthusiasm, and funding. And since the organization and the international cooperation it manages in this story probably hold the future of the human race, it’s an advertisement for which we can be grateful. Though not as showy as Gravity, The Martian will have you chuckling, armrest-gripping, and hoping for the best…not a bad night at the movies.