Desperation, anxiety, stubbornly saying yes to survival: If grand struggles are your thing, there are plenty in Ridley Scott's The Martian, based on Andy Weir's popular novel, which was first self-published in 2011 and then picked up by Crown in 2014 — itself a rare seedling that took root against all odds. In both novel and movie, American astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars when his fellow crew members leave him for dead after a ferocious dust storm. He comes to, alone on a planet indifferent to his existence, and presumes he's simply going to die. But he doesn't: Even on a dust-dry rock, Watney figures out how to make water; using his own excrement for manure, he succeeds in conjuring an indoor potato field, jump-started by spuds that had been sent into space with the crew as a treat for Thanksgiving dinner. And because he's a scientist — a botanist — he keeps a log of his experiences, one that's both specific in its technical detail and cheerfully colloquial. His interior monologues have a “Hey, I might end up dead!” esprit.
Weir's novel, heavy on science patter, is all about problem-solving; cozy American ingenuity burns brightly in its heart. Watney even finds a way to communicate with NASA types back on Earth, who race the calendar to keep him alive until they can get him back home. It takes a long time to get supplies to Mars, let alone send up a rescue crew, and that little potato crop can't last forever.
Whatever The Martian's problems may be
For those longing for realism in their science fiction movies — whatever realism means in that context — Scott's 3-D adaptation of The Martian may be just the thing. Everything in it is reasonable. Even if you don't know much about the scientific principles involved — I certainly didn't — by the end you'll feel pretty confident that if you should ever find yourself stuck on Mars, you'd know how to save yourself using spare space gear and wood shavings from a small crucifix. You'd also feel secure in the knowledge that some brainiac back on Earth could bring you back using a combination of physics, geometry and the finest slingshot technology available.
The Martian is only partly a story about a man in peril; it's mostly a story about men (and a few women) taking control of the uncontrollable. It's confident, swaggering sci-fi, not the despairing kind.
That may be why, as elaborate and expensive-looking as The Martian is, it's almost totally lacking in poetry. This is an overwhelming picture, oversized in its scope and ambition, especially when viewed in 3-D: It'll wow you with shots of jumbo metal space gears churning around and lots of people floating — just because in space, you can. The actors are treated as accessories, and there are plenty of them: On Earth, at NASA headquarters, stalwart Chiwetel Ejiofor is the chief scientist fighting to get Watney home, though even he is lost in the movie's grinding machinery. Jeff Daniels is the head of NASA, who also wants Watney back on Earth soil, as long as it doesn't mess up his bureaucratic hair too much. Kristen Wiig — a brilliant comedian who doesn't need to be a “serious” actress and who should perhaps stop trying — struts around NASA headquarters in stiff little professional dresses, looking glumly anxious over what kind of spin to put on this lost-astronaut story. Her character, the resident PR honcho, looks as if all the spirit has been crushed out of her.
Meanwhile, out there in space, the crew of that original mission — among them Michael Peña, Kate Mara and the captain, a boringly dutiful Jessica Chastain — are hunkered down in their ship and headed back to Earth, after leaving poor Matt Damon, seemingly skewered to death by a communications antenna (oh, the irony) on the Red Planet.
Damon's Watney is the only one worth feeling anything for, and whatever The Martian's problems may be, Damon is undoubtedly the best thing in it. Even in middle age, he looks boyishly vulnerable, especially when seen in that tight-fitting skullcap astronauts wear beneath their helmets, kind of like the ones Baby Jesus wears in Flemish paintings. How the hell is his Watney going to hold it together on Mars, armed only with those potatoes for nourishment and a clutch of disco tracks for entertainment? (The latter have been left behind by Chastain's captain, and they're a running gag — Watney hates disco.) But Damon looks like the kind of boy who could fix your bike chain in a jiffy. Sure, he can survive! It's fun watching him figure out how to plant his garden — with some clever editing, Scott speeds up the process of waiting for the sprouts — or find 1,001 uses for a plastic tarp. (There are a lot of tarps in The Martian.)
Scott orchestrates all of this like a pro. Two of his last three movies (Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus) were so grand in scale that making this one probably wasn't a leap. He's workmanlike in his approach to science, which always trumps magic in The Martian — that's the point. But if we can't feel a sense of wonder at the magnitude and mystery of space, why even bother? In 3-D, at least, The Martian is handsome only in a perfunctory way: As with so many 3-D movies — Hugo and Gravity are exceptions — its hues look somewhat anemic and drained. (Stills from the film look brighter and richer, suggesting it might be best viewed in 2-D.) Even Mars' craggy landscape is less than vivid. Portions of the film were shot in Wadi Rum, in Jordan, but cinematographer Dariusz Wolski fails to make this desert landscape look otherworldly — the Death Valley of so many B Westerns looks more mysterious and threatening.
Or, flipping to a more recent reference, what about the satiny red sandscape of Brian De Palma's 2000 Mission to Mars, a half-dreamy, half-plausible effect achieved in part by cinematographer Stephen Burum's use of light reflectors made of copper sheeting? If I have to be stuck on Mars for any length of time, that's the one I want.
The most affecting sequence in The Martian comes late, after Damon's Watney has been stranded on this dangerously semi-hospitable planet for such a very long time: His previously robust frame is bony. His face — that of a man who, even in his mid-40s, looks barely old enough to shave — has sprouted a rangy, mountain-man beard. Watney has refashioned himself as a space pirate. Finally, he's gone potty, but only just a little — he'll spring back to normal soon enough.
But for a few moments, he's a spiritual twin to Don Cheadle in Mission to Mars, another left-behind astronaut who managed to make stuff grow. By the time Cheadle's friends and colleagues finally rescue him, he has become the prisoner of a greenhouse that has also saved his life — it's enemy and sustenance at once. And even though he, like Watney, regains his sanity, there's a glimmer of madness in his eyes that will never fully dissipate. Mission to Mars was derided on its release, but there are few movies about space exploration as visually resplendent, or as delicately perched between mournfulness and optimism. And have we really reached the point where advanced special effects count for more than visual imagination?
De Palma, himself a high school science fair winner, approached space as a mystery, a problem beautiful in its vast unsolvability. Scott, all about solutions, gives us the most seemingly authentic Mars money can buy. That doesn't make it the best.
THE MARTIAN | Directed by Ridley Scott | 20th Century Fox | Citywide