If you search “The Martian reviews” on Google, every single top hit will include some iteration of the sentiment that this is a great science-fiction movie. They’ll tell you that this movie fixes the problem that all sci-fi films have had until now, they’ll breathlessly fawn over the concept of a nerd action hero, and they’ll remind you that in his heart, MacGyver, too, was a scientist.
All of that would be great and true, if The Martian was a movie about science. But it’s not. Instead, The Martian is a movie about people — people who are dynamic, flawed, and overwhelmingly resilient in the face of crushing odds. And it’s a damn good movie at that.
Following in centuries of film tradition established by American cinema’s forefathers George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, The Martian finds Ben Affleck’s boyhood golden retriever all grown up and stranded on a planet of his very own: Mars. Matt Damon, as astronaut Mark Watney, is immensely likable, a fact aided in no small part by his propensity to drop F-bombs and use himself as a human matchstick time and again. He finds himself stuck on Mars after a dust storm forces his six-man mission, captained by Jessican Chastain, to make an emergency departure for Earth, leaving a presumed-dead Watney behind.
The very not-dead Watney now faces an insurmountable task: he must attempt to stretch 30 some-odd days of rations into multiple years worth until NASA’s next Mars mission reaches the red planet. Nerds may resume their rejoicing here: the science is indeed, fantastic. It’s just believable enough (why couldn’t you use your own poop as fertilizer?), while staying above most viewers’ heads (what’s that now about the necessity of toting radioactive incendiary devices, just to bury them at Mars later?). The science in the movie doesn’t just track in a way moviegoers can keep up with to a degree; instead, it’s the type of scientific techno-babble that incites joy. As Andy Weir, the author of The Martian has often said, Watney isn’t just a geek in space, he’s MacGyver. And MacGyver does he ever, ingeniously.
Despite stretching over a seemingly unwieldy two-and-a-half hours, the film rolls along at a breakneck pace. This is in no small part thanks to the fact that director Ridley Scott, clearly hoping to bounce back from the dumpster fire that was Exodus, lets Watney waste precious little time dwelling on anything other than how to get back home and the most efficient way to season space potatoes once ketchup ran out (spoiler: crushed up Vicodin). By keeping the movie steadily focused on the task at hand for Watney, the NASA ground crew, and his own team only halfway on their trip back to Earth, the pace never drags, heightening instead in controlled ways — no small feat for a movie pushing three hours.
Damon gives a tour de force performance, as expected, but it’s the supporting cast that elevates this beyond the typical “fear and respect in outer space” movie that’s been in vogue since zombie movies went out of style. Jessica Chastain, Watney’s disco-loving captain, is ever-phenomenal. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the curiously named Vincent Kapoor, is excellent as a beleaguered NASA exec stuck between a rock and a hard place. Michael Peña, playing a fellow astronaut, continues his summer as the tentpole sidekick to beat, easily eclipsing his memorable Ant-Man role from earlier in the year. As head of NASA’s corporate communications, Kristin Wiig is transcendental in her severely underwritten role of “woman who gets to stand around a lot while men speak around her.” For once, Sean Bean was able to make it to the ending credits with his life intact. A hearty congratulations to Sean Bean!
We could pick apart the pieces that make The Martian great all day. That’s what a scientist watching a movie like The Martian would want to do. But to do so fails to capture the bigger picture: this is what summer tentpole films should be like. It’s not just the cast, or the source material, or the pacing — it’s the entire experience. It’s the ability to enter a theater for a movie with an incredibly unlikely premise, and to be able to forget mere minutes later that anything might be impossible.
So no, The Martian isn’t just a movie about science, made for desperately wanting sci-fi fans. To call it so would be a disservice. Instead, this is a movie for everyone: kids, adults, film snobs, Michael Bay fans, and, yes, even nerds.