Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: you can’t judge an actor’s work by the stupid shit they say off-screen. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating; you’re not just inviting unnecessary peripherals into your viewing experience, but you may very well end up missing some fine films for no good reason. That said, the ill-timed PR crash-and-burn campaign currently befalling Matt Damon is particularly unfortunate, and not only because he seemed like such a reasonable and thoughtful guy, before he started white-splaining diversity and advising gay actors to closet it up. It’s tough because the success of the movie he’s ostensibly promoting, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, rests so fully on our engagement with, and admiration of, the actor.
He plays Mark Watney, left behind during a manned mission to Mars that goes awry, his commander (Jessica Chastain) and crew assuming he’s dead. But he’s not; he wakes up disoriented, inured, and basically out of oxygen. After dragging himself to their base and performing a bit of sweaty self-surgery, he survives — though the duration of that survival is up for grabs. Even if he can establish contact, it’ll take four years to get another crew up there, far less than the oxygen and food on hand. “So, yeah,” he says. “Yeah.” And that seems to be that; he casually sits down to watch his life tick away, before the turnaround comes. “I’m not gonna die up here,” he decides. There’s one way to stay alive: “I’m gonna have to science the shit outta this.”
In the wrong hands, a line like that — and, frankly, a movie like this — could sink like a stone. So the casting of Damon in this role is key, not only because he’s credibly smart enough to play a botanist/astronaut/MacGyver in space, but because usually, his neighborhood-guy likability puts you on his side. You’re up there with him, and hopefully pulling for him, not unlike Tom Hanks on the desert island in Cast Away. And Damon doesn’t need a volleyball, as the film wisely has Watney keep filing video logs of the mission, ostensibly to document it but presumably to give himself “someone” to talk to. So there’s your exposition and explanation; it also allows welcome shots of humor, via dialogue like, “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I am the greatest botanist on this planet.”
For much of the first act, The Martian seems to follow the mold of the Zemeckis film — and then it begins to break away. For reasons frankly never quite explained to my satisfaction, communication with NASA isn’t possible, until a satellite watcher takes note of unexplained movements on the red planet. And thus the space organization must pull an “eh, not so much” following a public tragedy and state funeral, and figure out how to get this guy home.
And it takes some figuring. Your mileage may vary, but this viewer gets a particular charge out of fiction preoccupied with the very simple task of dramatizing people doing their jobs who are particularly good at them. Scott assembles an enviable supporting cast — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover on the ground; Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie in the air — all of them playing very smart people who will work on the problem and, hell or high water, will solve it.
They perform calculations. They create mirror sites, replicate his actions, try out possible hacks. They adjust timelines, and readjust them. Colleagues volunteer, at great risk. And when all else fails, they improvise. (I have no idea if the science here checks out, and I could not care less, “fact-checking” web articles; what matters, since we’re talking about a motion picture, is I believe it checks out.) There are setbacks and defeats; each hurt more than if he’d just thrown in the towel at beginning, because now, survival seems possible. Frankly, when you’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor on your side, anything seems possible.
And that spirit is ultimately what carries The Martian, past the questionable narrative stumbles, the peculiar techniques (not sure about those fast-forwards, Ridley), and the unfortunate ‘70s pop soundtrack that feels like someone trying to be clever, which is never a good look (I’ve been assured that this ill-advised, one-joke gimmick was present in the novel, but space montage sequences with a disco beat nevertheless feel like they’re ripping off Guardians of the Galaxy). It’s just a cracklingly good entertainment, a crowd-pleaser that’s compelling and emotional and even a little inspirational.
There will come a time in almost any mission, Watney tells the students in his astronaut training course, when you think you might die. You can train for it, and you can think you’re ready for it, but when that moment comes, it’s devastating — to come to terms with the fact that this is it. “Now, you can either accept that,” he tells them, “or you can get to work.” The equation lies at the heart of The Martian; it’s what the movie’s really about, beyond an astronaut stuck on Mars. The spirit of “getting to work” is what propels the movie, and gives it its charge. This is a movie about smart people facing problems that are seemingly out of their reach, and rising to the occasion. Here’s hoping Damon can do the same.
The Martian is out Friday.