When the term “inspirational” is thrown around with films these days, they typically refer to films with at least a tie to a religion. But when an astronaut is stranded on Mars in The Martian, his answer isn’t prayer; it’s a decision to “science the shit” out of his dilemma. While it’s crafted (and works extremely well) as an adventure film with a higher-than-usual focus on technical jargon, The Martian is at its core an inspirational film about humans and their ability to surmount even the most daunting of challenges with rational thought and ingenuity.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a botanist who’s on Mars as part of NASA’s Ares III mission. Within a few minutes of the film opening, NASA notifies the team of an approaching storm that’s larger than they previously anticipated. The Ares III team tries to evacuate, and in the process, Watley is blown away, with all signs of life support saying that he’s dead. The rest of the team manages to get off of Mars, with Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) giving the order to head home, angry with her decisions leading to Watley’s death.
Except Watley isn’t dead. Instead, he’s at the beginning of a situation where most people would understandably choose to give up and die. Watley isn’t most people, though. He’s a fighter with a smart scientific mind, and he simply can’t go along with giving up. He solves problems for a living; solving this problem will actually mean living.
Don’t expect for this to be some sort of dry or overly dramatic film based on that description, though. One of the keys to The Martian‘s success is that it’s a celebration of intelligence and creative problem-solving that’s also funny. That humor is a brilliant move on the part of writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), and it should make the more intellectual parts of the film more easily digestible. In Damon’s hands, Watney is a nerd who may record a regular video log to show how he’s converting hydrazine into water, so he can in turn irrigate a potato farm culled from a handful of potatoes intended for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner. But he’s also human enough to say he’ll “science the shit” out of his problem, or when asked by NASA to provide a photo of himself, strike a Fonzie pose.
To be clear: The Martian doesn’t use humor (or anything else) to ditch its science in an effort to create a story that’s more “universal,” like Interstellar did. The characters here are constantly engaged in trying to solve this problem. But it also doesn’t stop director Ridley Scott from creating some stunning visuals, particularly with Watley’s time spent exploring the surface of Mars.
The film is also loaded with a stellar ensemble cast both on Earth and on the Ares III, which in most cases would mean that every actor would get a “moment” of their own. Thankfully, Goddard’s script doesn’t create moments that don’t feel organic to the story. Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan are the two most notable names to not get anything special with their material, but they both turn in great performances anyway. Kristen Wiig and Michael Peña both provide comic levity that caters to their particular styles, while Sean Bean gets to deliver a joke that will thrill fans of The Lord of the Rings. Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor both give strong impressions as the mission’s space- and earth-bound leaders, respectively. But the biggest surprise is a series of scenes late in the film with Donald Glover as one of many workers at the JPL attempting to solve Watley’s problem. His performance is a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled series of jitters combined with a lack of social graces, but Glover wisely makes sure this character isn’t regarded as a joke.
Not to beat a dead horse, but The Martian is ultimately what I sense a lot of people expected and/or wanted Interstellar to be last year. It’s a thinking person’s blockbuster; it provides enough humor and emotion to make the film feel important, but without undermining the intelligence of these characters. It’s a story that, at times, does become tense, but The Martian is ultimately a thoroughly inspirational story about the ability of people. It’s exactly the kind of film we need.