The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as Mr. Spock declared, but not where Matt Damon is concerned. Matt Damon must be saved at all cost, because one of the few things that unite the human race at this time is our fondness for Matt Damon. He’s good-looking, but not so handsome that he makes you feel like crap; he’s famous, but he’s not smug about it; he does good things but doesn’t have them publicized constantly, and unlike his friend he’s never starred in Gigli, been thrown out of casinos or accused of banging the nanny. (He’s actually due for a backlash.)
Nearly 20 years ago, the US had to send a squad into Nazi-occupied Europe to bring him back home in Saving Private Ryan. They sacrificed Vin Diesel. They sacrificed Tom Hanks! Damon joins Hanks and Sandra Bullock in that very special place in the current cinema: they’re the people the audience likes without question. In The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who is presumed dead and left on Mars by his fellow astronauts. In the ensuing discussion about how to save him, no one even mentions that the rescue mission would cost bajillions. It’s Matt Damon!
Like the novel it is based upon, The Martian is a straightforward problem-solving thriller. As written by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Marvel’s Daredevil), it does not wax philosophical about man’s place in the universe. It does not wonder whether there is life out there, though the announcement of the NASA discovery of water on Mars days before the movie’s theatrical opening means that it will always be associated with the search for extraterrestrial life. And though the situation is beyond dire, it does not indulge in sentimentality. When things get overwhelming, there’s disco music to kill the self-pity (Though we do not believe that there was no other kind of music in the astronauts’ laptops). When Watney finally allows himself to cry, it’s a well-earned release.
After he staples himself together (reminding us of a scene from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus), Watney does not give in to rage or despair, but gets down to the problem of survival. Fortunately the Hermes mission (Bad choice of name, it made us think of a handbag flying through space) left a lot of equipment, including cameras so he can address us directly and explain what he’s doing. He figures out how to manufacture water, grow potatoes, and let mission control back on earth know that he’s alive. The movie works because we want Watney to live, and because we believe he can MacGyver his way until NASA figures out a plan.
Ridley Scott has taken us to outer space before, most notably in Alien, but The Martian bears little resemblance to his previous work. There is no dread or existential anguish. There are no villains—not the mission leader Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) or the crew (Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara who is way more believable as a scientist here than in Fantastic 4) who do not hesitate to risk their lives to get Watney back; not the NASA officials Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean—nice Lord of the Rings reference, but they passed on the obvious “Winter is coming” joke); not the NASA PR lady (Kristen Wiig) who has to break the news to the public; certainly not the NASA engineers and physicists including Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover); and not even the competing space programs of other countries. The closest The Martian has to a villain is the NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), who has to make tough decisions to ensure not just Watney’s survival but that of the entire space program. And he’s just doing his job.
The Martian, a most un-Ridley Scott Ridley Scott movie, is an efficient entertainment, a popcorn movie in which astrophysics and engineering are not the exclusive domain of nerds but matters that concern everyone. A movie that assumes the audience is smart. That’s thrilling.