Despite a number of well-crafted elements, the success or failure of The Martian absolutely depended on Matt Damon’s performance in the lead role. It’s true that, in contrast to spiritual predecessors like Gravity and Castaway, the film was not a one-man show, instead featuring a murderer’s row of stellar supporting players. What’s more, its narrative thrills were not limited to its protagonist’s adventures on Mars; The Martian told an equally compelling story of what was happening back home.
But Damon’s Mark Watney, and his lonely trials and tribulations on a desolate planet, were the lifeblood of the film, commanding the lion’s share of its run time and focus. That meant that for much of the movie, Damon alone had to convey his character’s distress, his resolve, his humor, and his humanity, with no one but the camera to talk to. And despite that handicap, he succeeded with flying colors. Few major roles share the degree of difficulty of Damon’s here, where the main character spends much of the film in solitude, with little in the way of major plot developments or action to maintain the energy of the picture, and the performance Damon delivered with that backdrop more than lived up to the challenge.
Part of what makes Watney likable and endearing enough that the audience not only tolerates spending the bulk of film with him, but invests in his plight, survival, and rescue, is the humor in the film. It’s not surprising with a screenplay penned by Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Drew Goddard, but despite the extreme premise of the film and the “whole world is watching” stakes of its major conflict, the dialogue is filled to the brim with laugh-worthy moments centering around the silly and the mundane in the midst of the weighty circumstances Watney and the team trying to bring him back home find themselves in. And the film includes so many of those small human moments that help the audience buy into a plot focused alternatively on solving scientific problems and technobabble.
Those human moments–from Watney initially demeaning Commander Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) taste in music before giving into it, to an analyst reassuring her boss that a profane kiss off might have been meant in a positive way–are important, because beyond Watney, most of the film’s characters are quick sketches. That never hurts the production, however, because even when the characters feel stock–Donald Glover as the unorthodox young engineer, Jeff Daniels as the kind-hearted but pragmatic head of the agency, etc.–each of the actors in a star-studded cast sells their role in the supporting ensemble with aplomb, and each of them has just enough flavor to make them distinct.
The tone of the film helps on that front as well. The way The Martian balances the dispiriting sense that Watney is doomed, the joy in his Sisyphean efforts to survive, the tension in the moments where he struggles to find a solution to a seemingly intractable problem or the herculean efforts to rescue him hit a setback, and the simple but sweet reminders that these are human beings who do fun and foolish things even in a crisis, helps to center the film. Keeping things light, while never sacrificing the emotion or the stakes of the narrative is a difficult task, but Goddard’s script and Ridley Scott’s talents as a director allow them to hit the mark with style.
It’s hard to believe that Scott is the same director who unleashed Prometheus on the world just a few short years ago. Whereas that intergalactic film, granting that it hews more toward science fiction, is practically incoherent in terms of its plot, The Martian builds its story plausibly and organically, to where despite the film’s 2+ hour runtime, the narrative progresses so smoothly, and the characters’ decisions and actions seem so natural and logical in that progression, that the audience barely feels it.
It also does a superb job of incorporating the more esoteric scientific elements from the source material, and couching them both in character moments and a strong visual sensibility that communicate the degree of difficulty of what Watney and NASA are attempting, without leaving the film laden with inscrutable technical jargon. There’s a pop-science bent to the film, one that feels more rooted in colorfully-named Facebook groups than academic rigor, but the film’s approach nonetheless sells the importance and excitement of what the its nerdy contingent is trying to accomplish while preserving the hard science fiction core of the work.
At the same time, Scott makes the most of his setting and his stars. The production design, from the realistic-yet-futuristic ships and equipment in space, to the rust-colored vistas Scott sweeps through in wide shots, add to both the reality and the beauty of the film. Scott also frames much of the film through third-person video screens–whether it’s Watney’s video journals or CNN coverage of a NASA press conference that gradually fade into a more traditional shot–conveying both a sense of verisimilitude in these somewhat outlandish events, but also a personal, intimate sense of place, especially for the film’s protagonist. In total, it creates beautiful images to wow the viewer with the scope and magnitude of the setting and the problem, but also brings the audience closer to the man at the center of the story.
The film’s greatest achievement is how it fosters such an investment in Watney’s struggle. In a film that feels like a cross between Hatchet and Apollo 13, the way The Martian shows its main character solving problem after problem with good humor, while avoiding the pitfalls of making him look like an implausible wunderkind, breeds both attachment to the character and a connection to his story.
In many survival films along these lines, the endgame feels inevitable, and the emotional stakes of the climax suffer. The Martian does falter a bit in manufacturing additional, piled-on drama at the film’s close, but there’s such a catharsis in its conclusion, in the form of a beautifully composed scene that, good-or-bad, represents the culmination of the personal struggle of Watney, and the delirious efforts of Vincent Kapoor (a crackling Chiwetel Ejiofor) on the ground.
The Martian features the trappings of a classic film–the dizzying shots, the foxhole mentality of the hero’s friends and compatriots, the best and brightest scrambling to do right, and the man against nature themes, replete with some leafy green symbolism–but it uses it all in service of the supremely human and assuredly nerdy that makes it more than the sum of its parts. The film can also boast a virtuoso performer who can amuse and enthrall with nothing more than a disco soundtrack and a potato. The excitement, pathos, and laughter that Scott, Goddard, Damon, and their collaborators are able to wring from what is, at times, a very solitary journey is no small achievement, and The Martian offers a feel-good story that earns every bit of the feeling.