Describe a movie as “inspirational,” and you create the impression that the film will be full of feel-good sentiment, soaring spirit—that it will be so emotional. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is largely a cold, deliberate film, but there’s still something undeniably stirring about it. Instead of showering us with treacle, the film pays tribute to simple human attributes such as smarts, teamwork, sacrifice and determination, going about its business much like its resourceful characters do. And yet, the film’s underlying message is nonetheless inspiring: We can do great things if only we put our minds to it.
Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian is set in a not-too-distant future in which U.S. astronauts are conducting manned missions to the Red Planet. The latest expedition finds a crew that includes Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) getting ready to return home to Earth when a deadly storm suddenly bears down on them. In the rush to return to their ship, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead, Lewis reluctantly taking the rest of her crew into space.
Except, of course, Watney hasn’t really died. With the rest of his team already into their return trip, heading for the third rock from the sun, he makes it back to the Martian-American base, quickly realizing that it will be months until another crew can reach him—and he doesn’t have the food to survive that long. Calm and resourceful, Watney begins formulating a plan that will provide him enough sustenance until NASA realizes he’s still alive. Being a botanist may not be a sexy profession, but it may just save his life.
Like a mixture of Apollo 13 and All Is Lost, The Martian is about know-how, celebrating brainpower to solve a seemingly impossible situation. Spanning more than a year, The Martian doesn’t spend much time exploring Watney’s mental makeup, Scott (who tends not to be much of a bleeding-heart filmmaker) seemingly uncurious about how someone would stay sane living completely alone on an inhospitable planet for so long. But if that means this film isn’t particularly psychologically rich, there’s also a benefit: By not delving into its protagonist’s head space, The Martian makes Watney’s quest all the more impressive. As title cards indicate how many days it’s been since we last checked in on Watney—sometimes, months have gone by—we absorb the length of time and marvel at how hard it must be.
Happily, The Martian is not a survival story in which the main character’s physical ordeal is married to some sort of inner journey. Watney may be underdeveloped, but he’s not some clichéd wounded or troubled soul who needs this adventure to “learn” something about himself. (In other words, Watney’s not like Tom Hanks’s marooned character in Cast Away, whose ordeal became a cosmic teachable moment about not being so obsessed with the rush-rush-rush of modern life.) Largely unsentimental, The Martian doesn’t have time for platitudes or life lessons: Watney has to stay alive, and the folks back home have to figure out how to communicate with him and get him off that rock.
Scott’s clinical tone is reflected in his casting of the NASA employees involved in Watney’s rescue. Jeff Daniels plays the top man at the agency, part calculating politician and part fearless leader. Chiwetel Ejiofor runs NASA’s Mars missions, a shrewd man responsible for saving Watney, if a thing is even possible. With Kristen Wiig serving as the agency’s PR director, NASA is completely demystified, portrayed as a problem-solving organization that’s fresh out of men or women offering gung-ho speeches about the American spirit. People just hunker down and get shit done.
Adapting to the film’s stripped-down emphasis on reason, Damon relies on his considerable likeability to fill in the gaps of his character. Watney isn’t Mr. Personality, but he comes across in his video diary entries and other interactions as an amiable, bright guy. He’s not married, has no kids or (apparently) a girlfriend, and so in some ways he’s an ideal candidate to hang out on Mars alone for months. Beyond being drawn to Damon’s comforting star appeal, we enjoy Watney because he’s a doer, always trying something new to improve his chances of survival. (He creates a garden. He calculates how he can reach the base where the next NASA mission will land.) Watney is profoundly capable, and much of the pleasure of The Martian is watching him figure things out. The film is almost a mystery with Watney trying to solve the riddle of prolonging his life until help arrives.
Speaking of help, Chastain and her crew, which also includes (among others) Michael Peña and Kate Mara, will factor into The Martian’s climax, having to decide how they can rescue Watney when their ship is piloted on a course in the opposite direction of Mars. As with Damon, Chastain and the other actors aren’t expected to give large performances. Scott seems to be arguing that, for this mission to succeed, you don’t need outsized heroes but, rather, measured, intelligent individuals who don’t lose their heads in an emergency. The cast responds in kind, leaning on Drew Goddard’s economical screenplay adaptation, which favors logistics over character detail.
Ultimately, The Martian could be thought of as a sci-fi procedural, observing how a group of individuals come together to rationally try to save one of their own. As you might imagine, much depends on the film’s outcome, and Scott finds a way, even in the story’s final moments, to undercut the obviously emotional stakes with a calm precision that makes it all the more thrilling and harrowing. Consequently, The Martian is subtly heroic, peeling away the potential histrionics of the stranded-on-Mars plot to look at the very human men or women who ensure that the spaceships can fly in the first place.
Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay); Andy Weir (novel)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Release Date: October 2, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.