Space wants to kill you. Very badly. All those sci-fi movies with the aliens and the monsters and the demons from other dimensions, they’re fine, hell, some of them are pretty damn awesome. But they’re kind of overkill. When you come right down to it, plain old space will get the job done without any outside help. Another planet can end you in seconds with its own unbreathable air. Why complicate things with creatures when the natural environment is hostile enough? Sir Ridley Scott gets this entirely. While he’s made one of the best science fiction monster movies of all time, 1979’s gut-wrenching Alien, Scott thankfully sees no need to repeat himself. This time. (I’m looking at you, Prometheus (2012).) With Matt Damon starring as stranded astronaut Mark Watney, The Martian (2015) is an epic survival story of man against nature, however far away and unnatural.
It’s the near future and the crew of Ares 3 is conducting a manned research mission to Mars. A powerful Martian sandstorm (more like a rock-storm) blows in, jeopardizing the mission and forcing them to evacuate. Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) rallies her crew to the lander vehicle but Watney is bowled over by a flying communications antenna and lost in the storm. Not reading any life signs, the crew takes off, leaving Watney behind. With an unfortunate kind of luck, Watney wakes to find himself alive and stranded, a piece of the antenna puncturing his bio-monitoring equipment and piercing his abdomen. He’s immediately thrown into the loneliest quest for survival a human has ever faced, fifty million miles from home. While the station affords him air and recycled water, he’s got limited food, and not much to improvise with. In his favour, he’s a botanist, and in his own words, he’s going to have to “science the shit out of this.” His ingenuity buys him time, but he’s going to need an awful lot more. The next mission to Mars isn’t scheduled for another four years, and even once NASA becomes aware they’ve left one of their own behind, the sheer scale and distance of a rescue operation means many months to get up to speed.
Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian is an immensely enjoyable yarn about the vast and risky enterprise of space exploration and the collective genius that makes it possible. Damon’s Watney is a plucky, enterprising hero, but his survival requires the coordinated efforts of many. Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean portray the NASA bigwigs trying to balance saving one man against the enormous cost and the reputation of the organization, while Jessica Chastain’s Captain Lewis and her crew must make their own weighty decisions in the wake of their necessary mistake. The film’s shot in understated 3D, Darius Walski’s cinematography bringing the forbidding Martian landscape to life with its looming crags, drifting dust devils and crimson sand (actually shot in Jordan). The story enjoys an added meta kick, Damon reprising the gist of his role as the man who must be brought home, Saving Private Ryan (1998) in space. If anything, the sheer size of the talented cast keeps the story humming on the surface, while it rarely stops to dig deeper into the existential question of why we as a race take such risks to explore. (For instance, Donald Glover blips in as the edgy young scientist with a breakthrough insight, but his screen-time is so brief he’s barely there.) But if The Martian doesn’t strive for the heft of say Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, it’s mercifully short on that film’s lugubrious sentimentality. Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard focus on the practical problems of Watney’s plight, and the clever solutions he cooks up with so little at hand. In the end, perhaps the drive to explore is to push the limits of our experience. And going to Mars isn’t so very different from climbing Mount Everest. It’s a potentially deadly enterprise, but as the mountaineer George Mallory said, we do it “because it’s there.”
The Martian premieres today at 9:30pm for a TIFF Gala at Roy Thomson Hall and will appear three more times during the festival before opening in North America on October 2nd, 2015. For info on TIFF screenings, see here.