Botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a six-person crew exploring the surface of Mars as part of the Ares III mission. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is informed by crew member Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) of an approaching dust storm that has intensified since the last weather update and may cause their return vehicle to topple over. Lewis orders the crew to head to the launch vehicle and prepare to return to their mothership Hermes in orbit. As they walk from a habitat module to the return vehicle, a piece of equipment is picked up by the wind and strikes Watney with such force that it carries him away from the others. Unable to see him in the blinding storm and receiving telemetry that his suit has been breached, Lewis makes the decision to leave him behind since it appears he is dead. The crew launches and begins the nine month trip back to Earth. Watney wakes up, injured but alive. He returns to the habitat and assesses his situation. He can’t contact Hermes or NASA since his communications equipment was destroyed in the storm. He is in a habitat designed to last 30 days with a limited food and water supply and he’s looking at a minimum of four years before the next mission is scheduled to arrive. Watney begins thinking of ways to extend his food and water supply. Back on Earth, Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) to use satellites orbiting Mars to look at the Ares III landing site but Sanders refuses fearing images of Watney’s body on the surface would turn public sentiment against the space program. Kapoor asks an operator in Mission Control to redirect a satellite to look at the Ares III location and notices a rover has changed locations. NASA realizes Watney is alive and begin working on plans to send him supplies. Using his remaining supplies and repurposing the equipment to which he has access Watney does everything he can to stay alive and have the best chance at rescue.
“The Martian” is more than a science-fiction movie. The story wouldn’t be hugely different if the setting was in the wilderness and a lone character had to figure out how to survive with just his wits and limited supplies. While the potential wait for rescue would be significantly shorter, the basics would remain the same. That’s what makes “The Martian” a movie that appeals to those that like sci-fi and those that don’t, as shown by the large take at the box office. It is a film that focuses on one man’s struggle to survive in an environment that has several different ways it can kill him. While the locale is out of this world, the struggle is completely relatable.
Matt Damon is such an everyman he easily fits into just about any role. From a troubled mathematical genius to an amnesiac super spy to a stranded astronaut, Damon finds the humanity in all his characters no matter what insanity might swirl around them. His work in “The Martian” is no different. Damon plays Watney as a brilliant man, cool under pressure, but not someone that doesn’t have doubts about his chances from time to time. The strain of being alone takes its toll on Watney and Damon unapologetically shows us his fear and anger. It’s a brilliant performance on which the entire movie rides.
That isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t given a chance to shine. Large chunks of the story take place on Earth and on board the Hermes. As the characters deal with the pressures of figuring out a way to save their stranded comrade and the guilt of having left him behind, we see the kind of political, personal and public relations decisions that go on behind the scenes. There are hard choices that have to be made and difficult calculations on the worth of one man’s life. Is the risk of saving Watney worth the cost in materials, manpower and possible bad PR? It’s the kind of questions the real space program hasn’t had to answer publicly but I’m sure discussions about all the possible outcomes of missions have led to some heated debates. It’s that sort of real-world consideration along with the excitement and tension that make “The Martian” such a grounded story for a sci-fi movie.
“The Martian” is rated PG-13 for injury images, brief nudity and some strong language. We see Watney’s injury and his self-surgery to repair the damage. There are a couple of views of Watney’s bare backside. Foul language is widely scattered but the film does use its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”
“The Martian” is based on a book of the same name by Andy Weir. According to an interview in the podcast “SciFi Geeks Club,” Weir says screenwriter Drew Goddard consulted him on certain aspects of the story and the movie is about 95% faithful to his book. That is almost unheard of in making books into movies. That kind of adherence to the source material may play some part in why “The Martian” is such a great movie. It doesn’t dumb down the science and it keeps the characters grounded with real emotion along with humor to keep the threat of impending death from making the movie too grim. It is well worth your time and money whether you enjoy science fiction or not.