It’s becoming an annual tradition to get a big space epic in early fall. Two years ago it was “Gravity,” last year it was “Interstellar.” This year it’s “The Martian,” which if nothing else finally breaks the losing streak of movies set on Mars (“John Carter” anyone? And if no one answers, well, that was the problem). It’s a more laid-back film than the comparable fall space odysseys, but there’s a quiet intensity to it. There’s also a decent amount of traditional intensity to it.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist participating in a mission on Mars that goes haywire. A storm kicks up that causes the team to have to leave immediately. Watney gets hit by a piece of debris and essentially blown away. His team, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), tries to get him back, but they’re in danger from the storm themselves and they realize that he probably didn’t survive getting hit with the metal shard, which punctured his space suit. Reluctantly, they leave Watney behind, not knowing that he’s still alive. The shard did puncture his suit, but it’s also holding the suit in place. After some nasty self-surgery, Watney comes to terms with the fact that he’s stuck on Mars alone.
The rest of the film sees Watney struggling to survive on a planet that has never before had to sustain a human life. The team did leave a shelter full of supplies behind, but he has a host of other problems. He has to figure out how to grow food, which is a tall order even for a professional botanist. He has to survive storms worse than the one that originally got him stranded. Most importantly, he has to figure out how to contact NASA to help him get off the planet, even though it will inevitably take them several years to get another ship to him and he may not have the resources to survive that long.
The rescuers struggle with problems of their own. NASA rushes to send Watney aid and they have to cut a few corners in the name of urgency. Watney’s original crew, still in space, debates an unauthorized rescue mission. Basically, everybody is having to make impossible decisions and overcome overwhelming obstacles. A few of these Earth and deep space scenes probably could have been cut, especially ones involving Donald Glover as a scatterbrained scientist that may have a perfect solution but nobody believes. We’ve seen this character a million times before and there’s no way other people aren’t coming up with the same solution.
Almost all of the obstacles are overcome with science-heavy solutions, or at least science-y sounding solutions. I’m terrible with science, so the movie somewhat lost me during these parts. I’ve heard people complaining that a lot of the science in the movie doesn’t check out and some of it does seem suspicious. I doubt duct tape is the insulator that the movie insists it is. I doubt that astronauts can transition between zero-gravity and regular gravity as smoothly as they do. I really doubt that a self-propelled “rocket” at the film’s climax would ever come close to working. Again, I’m not into science, but that scene… just can’t be right.
For better or worse, “The Martian” is a movie that takes its time. At its best, this means that the movie takes time to develop characters, build suspense, capture despair, get in some humorous pontifications, and give us some great shots of Martian (actually Jordanian) scenery. At its worst, this means that the movie drags, especially with the Earth scenes. I’d say that as long as you’re not in a hurry, you’ll find “The Martian” worthy of your time.
“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. Its running time is 141 minutes.