I am fascinated by films that show how people survive in impossible situations. THE MARTIAN is an old- fashioned “feel good” movie directed by Ridley Scott who knows how to make blockbusters and hold your attention - though here he goes “off course” from his usual dystopian science fiction-y horror movies like his breakthrough thriller “Alien.”
THE MARTIAN is basically about Mark Watney, (a breeze-through performance by Matt Damon,) as an affable brilliant, but down-to-earth botanist/scientist on a manned flight mission to Mars who is left stranded on the “red planet", after a fierce storm untethers him from the rest of the crew. Dramatic footage of sand and flying debris slamming the spaceship upending its stability, forces Jessica Chastain (performing in a minor role as Melissa Lewis, the flight Commander) to make the agonizing decision to abandon their fellow crew member - assuming he was killed by some space junk that pierced his body - to continue their NASA mission.
The quiet after the storm shows us a steadfast Matt Damon awakening to his dire predicament, and the knowledge that death is almost a certainty, but never panics; rather he is optimistic, immediately going into survivalist mode - step by step using all that science and life experience has taught him in order to figure out how to live on a planet without water or food. One advantage is the artificial space vehicle/living habitat, or Hab which is still intact - providing oxygen and dietary supplies including his fellow astronauts’ personal effects, along with a trove of "bad" music that becomes an ongoing joke in the film. The lighthearted likeability of Matt Damon, who relates his daily chores and mundane skirmishes with the airless “elements” via a video diary - a technique that keeps the film buoyantly hopeful; psychological depression never sets in - so we know that Hollywood has cast a rosy net of oblivion around THE MARTIAN. And by doing so, it feeds directly into the hearts of Rocky Balboa, and sports viewing fans - we love to see America’s can-do spirit triumph.
This is intrinsically a story about man’s ability to endure in the face of terrible odds - which makes for great theater, and we in the audience cheer him on. Who cannot get caught up in this existential dilemma and not feel the intensity of Mark Watney’s battle to exist? He is not alone - eventually there are others who join the fight to aid him in his heroic efforts to stay alive in an “alien” atmosphere; everyone realizing that there is a looming deadline when necessities will be depleted. Lots of actors contribute to the ensuing drama and add to the film’s tension, which involves the diminished "window of opportunity" - to bring Astronaut Watney home while he is still alive, as the months glide by.
The supporting actors were chosen to exemplify a “type” in the movie: Jeffrey Daniels as NASA’s Director, caught in the vise of the political ramifications of his decisions; Michael Pena, a fellow space traveler who is the jesting buddy; Chiwetel Ejiofor, an assistant at NASA who is a catalyst for getting things done; and a surprisingly wonderful scene-stealing performance by Donald Glover as a young “idiosyncratic” Jet Propulsion Lab scientist whose mathematical computations lead to innovative approaches in the rescue attempt to bring Watney home. Being a bit of a wonk, even though I don’t understand the mathematics and physics involved in the computations, I am thrilled seeing numbers and formulas no longer sitting abstractly on notebook papers, but put to use to change the world we live in- another example of what a group’s inventiveness and a resilient outlook can accomplish.