An astronaut finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars in The Martian. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on the Ares III mission to Mars, lead by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). When a storm results in an emergency evacuation, Mark is hit with debris and presumed dead. However, it turns out that Mark survived and is left to fend for himself in Mars’ hostile environment, while those at NASA, including director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), try to find a way to bring Mark Watney home.
Directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian is a adaptation of the 2011 novel by Andy Weir. A film that immediately came to mind for me while watching The Martian is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which is ironically celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. While The Martian is a work of fiction, as opposed to Apollo 13 being based on true events, the former features a similar level of problem solving in space.
Effectively, The Martian is telling two stories in one. On one hand, the film is detailing Mark Watney’s solo life on Mars, where he has to “science his way” out of his predicament. This includes attempting to grow crops on a planet that can’t support plant life and finding a way to contact NASA and make his way home. All these scenes are detailed through Mark’s video logs, which frequently has him trying to find the humour in his situation.
The other main plot thread involves the efforts by NASA to bring Mark Watney home. While the rescue plan begins a bit earlier in the film than I would have expected, it is driven by a great supporting cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean. There is also somewhat of a third plot thread involving the crew of the Ares III, which ends up playing a big role in the overall scheme of things.
Since an actual manned mission to Mars has yet to occur, The Martian can still be considered a piece of speculative science fiction. However, since the film was made in cooperation with NASA, it is probably the most grounded in reality depiction of the red planet so far on film, with the Wadi Rum desert in Jordon acting as the Earthbound stand-in for Mars.
When it is all said and done, The Martian is a pure piece of escapist cinema, with me not even feeling the film’s 2 hour and 21 minute run time. Even though there are not many other examples, this film is undoubtedly one of the best “problem solve in space” films to come around since Apollo 13.