Andy Weir's novel The Martian was one of those rare self-publishing success stories; a sudden, runaway success that seemed to captivate readers of all ages. It was a process-oriented page turner, a thing that put the science back into a type of science fiction. I wanted to like the book, but really I just couldn't stand it. The first person narration didn't work for me. It rang false, empty, too steadfast and cheeky for the nuances of the situation. Without a single soul to talk to, with nothing but time to plan, think, and exist, what does astronaut Mark Watney do in his down time? He keeps a steadfast log that includes every shred of his process and not a damn thing about his person. Sure. Right. You send a smart person into space and leave them alone for months and hundreds of pages later you still don't feel like you actually know the guy. You know his life on Mars, you know he's a flat, can-do dude, but that's about it.
In a novel, these are problems. In a movie, these issues disappear. Consequently, there’s a strong argument to be made for the strengths of Ridley Scott’s adaptation over, even, the original content of the Weir’s novel. While fans of the text may argue that a filmed version could never adequately match the level of detail and intricacy that made the book tick, Scott’s film is a brilliantly edited compilation of the text’s standout moments that manages to consistently entertain where it could have easily slipped into something exhaustive. Unlike Gravity, where Murphy’s Law seems to apply in such a way that the film builds into a burden, The Martian sparkles and finds ways to keep the tone light without losing a sense of urgency. This is in part due to a sharp performance by Matt Damon as Mark Watney, who manages to make confessional-style record keeping not only believable, but often quite charming. Though we’re watching 2+ hours of a science-bro in space, Damon renders Watney immediately likeable. We’re with him for the highs, frightened for him during the lows, and through his comments we’re willing to buy into the most reductive of disco soundtracks.
Damon’s likability here is key, because the film boasts a gung-ho positivity that would be cloying if its characters fell out of our favor for even a minute. There are sections of The Martian that feel like PSAs for scientific ingenuity, and the supporting cast becomes a who’s who of global togetherness. Everyone works in the film – and with casting that includes folks like Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, it’s strange that a cursory discussion of the film doesn’t really need to even mention them – because every character, like Watney, is built simply to do their job. They come together, they work, they leave the audience gripped by experiments and routine bureaucracy.
The Martian is a procedural. As much as it may show us stark martian landscapes or build in a couple brilliant action sequences, it is not driven by emotional needs or a personal sense of Mark Watney’s loss. We don’t bounce between left behind loved ones or our protagonist’s existential dread, we just focus on tasks: what needs to be done, the math of survival, the problem solving possibilities of getting a stranded man off Mars. This isn’t usually my type of science fiction. I’m a person who likes the stuff with a philosophical bent, the things that look at the line between human and machine or the stuff that reminds us just how small we are. Since I’m fairly cynical, I also don’t tend to favor films that ask us to rally in some big vision of the world coming together to root for the underdog. Yet, I loved watching The Martian. It’s a tightly constructed crowd-pleaser, a popcorn flick that packs big questions and major intelligence. Like Watney, Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Lost) knew the jobs they had to do and did them. The thing works. It hits all the right notes, uses all the right people, and never loses sight of its larger goals. It's hard to argue with it, but if you can, I'm thinking maybe you just don't really like fun...