Matt Damon's Mark Watney, one of the best botanists in the world, essentially becomes an alien when he's left stranded on Mars. He's a foreign man on a planet he doesn't understand with a geographical language he's not fluent in.
Despite all that, he's the sole reason the film manages to captivate the audience from beginning to end. His unwavering determination, and his incredible ability to maintain the essential part of his emotional makeup that defines him as a human being, transcends the millions of miles between him and the rest of humanity.
While The Martian may be seen at face value as the story of his sense of alienation on a bleak planet and his struggle to survive, the film is about the insurmountable courage found within during a time of hopelessness.
It all starts when Watney and his crew — including Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), mechanic Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), engineer Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and operator Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) — are caught in a sudden sandstorm. Chaos ensues and during their frantic scramble to flee Watney is knocked unconscious and assumed dead. By the time he wakes up and gets back to base, his crew has already left the planet and is en route back to Earth.
The Martian is a movie about one man alone with his thoughts
At the same time, NASA director Teddy Sanders (played superbly by Jeff Daniels) has alerted the press about his death, leading to a whirlwind media storm calling into question the safety and immediate importance of the Mars space program. It's a situation not entirely dissimilar to the one faced by NASA in 1967 when three Apollo I astronauts died here on Earth in a tragic fire.
While the film splits its story into two angles — Watney's exploration into uncharted land and the political response from NASA — the best moments occur when Watney is talking into his base's video recording device, audibly trying to work out every problem he's presented with.
Whether it's trying to figure out how to spread 360 days' rations over 800 days on Mars or ranting about the base only having disco music on board, it's these intimate moments that allow the audience to connect with Watney.
The Martian is a movie about one man alone with his thoughts, and what sells the character is Damon's genuine enthusiasm over discovering new areas of Mars. Damon not only nails the voiceover work, but his all-American look doesn't hurt when he's cracking jokes (which he does often) or bragging about all that he's accomplished (like being able to grow potatoes on a desolate planet).
It's most notable, however, when his sense of optimism about getting off of Mars and returning home is juxtaposed the pessimistic attitude NASA has about the possibility of Watney returning home safely. After it's discovered that Watney is indeed alive, the next step is figuring out how fast they can send a ship out to collect him.
From the get go it's problematic. NASA scientists must condense the amount of time it takes to build a rocket from six months to three, maintain constant communication with Watney to rendezvous with his rescuers and recalculate every algorithm they've ever jotted down in hopes of finding a faster way of getting to Mars before he starves.
The Martian offers a realistic take on the beauty of space
But while the mood on Earth is in a state of constant turmoil, Watney is usually smiling or laughing, using his time to move forward mile-by-mile each day. It's the stark comparison of his innate human desire to live and prosper with the limited food and material he has to NASA's begrudging acceptance that everything may go horribly wrong that works in Watney's favor. It makes you want to root for him, and that's so incredibly important in this movie.
Beside the metaphorical search of the human soul, The Martian is also a space movie, and as such, has some pretty great cinematography.
The moments of intense action, of which there are few, are beautifully captured and riveting. Ridley Scott understands how to perfectly frame a scene in order to maximize the amount of tension the audience will feel when watching it. In The Martian, there are moments where hands may be thrown over eyes. Not in fear, per se, but unbelievable close calls that will have your heart pounding.
There are few flaws within the film, but most noticeable is the lack of screen time allotted to certain characters that makes their overall presence confusing.
Director of Public Relations for NASA Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Astrodynamacist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) could have been interesting characters, but instead just came off as filler when the movie wanted an additional voice. They felt like wasted opportunities that could have been used to explore additional sides of the situation -especially Glover's highly scientific role- and their place in the film as a whole sticks out like a sore thumb. Fans of Community will get a kick out of watching Donald Glover play his character like Danny Pudi's Abed.
The Martian is the type of sci-fi movie that proves the excitement of space exploration isn't in the disaster, but in the human reaction to dealing with it. It didn't need big explosions or cliched speeches to make its presence known, it just needed some pretty fantastic disco music and an actor capable of pulling off a believable portrayal of an all around brilliant scientist and courageous man.
The Martian is a movie about hope, and there isn't one moment in the entire film where you aren't hoping along with Watney that he'll get home safe.