When humanity finally gets its act together and sends astronauts to Mars, we can only hope the mission is as cool — and our explorers as noble, smart and brave — as those in “The Martian.”
Director Ridley Scott does here what he has always done, from “Alien” to “Blade Runner” to “Gladiator”: He creates a fully realized film universe, then populates it with great actors playing fascinating characters doing astonishing things.
In “The Martian,” Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (“Cloverfield,” “The Cabin in the Woods”) adapt Andy Weir’s science-fiction novel into a perfectly paced survival thriller that is as riveting as it is technologically authentic. (I don’t care if the science is picked apart — the movie feels plausible, and that’s what matters here.)
In the near future, NASA sends a six-person mission to Mars. The exploration of the Red Planet gets cut short when a massive storm hits, and the crew must climb aboard the launch vehicle and escape. In the storm, one astronaut, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is hit by debris and presumed dead — forcing the commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), to make the awful decision to leave him behind.
But, surprise, Watney survives the storm, his torso impaled by an antenna array. He gets himself safely to the crew’s habitat and, after a little self-surgery, sizes up his situation: The habitat has life support for 30 days (or “sols,” the time it takes Mars to rotate once) and food for several months — but it would take four years for NASA to send a rescue party, and that’s only if he can signal Earth that he’s alive.
But Watney has supplies and, more important, his wits. “I’m going to have to science the s— out of this thing,” he declares in his video log.
Back at Mission Control, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) must deliver the bad news of Watney’s fate. But, then, one of Sanders’ scientists, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), notices something strange: Someone’s moving stuff around on the Mars mission’s landing area — an indication that Watney might be alive.
Now Sanders, under pressure from mission director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), must decide whether to risk a rescue. He also must decide whether to tell Lewis and her returning crew (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) that their colleague is alive.
Scott, aided by razor-sharp cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (“The Walk”) and production designer Arthur Max’s clean lines, makes every step of Watney’s struggle and the NASA response feel true-to-life. The stellar supporting cast — Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong all have notable roles back on Earth — smartly depict the can-do camaraderie we always hope resides at NASA.
At the center of it all, Damon gives a quietly intense performance as the stranded astronaut. His low-key charm pays off as the actor shows Watney deploying his intelligence and a wickedly droll humor through tiny victories and life-threatening setbacks. Through Damon, “The Martian” finds life, and irrepressible humanity, on Mars.