Excellence in cinema is sometimes a singular achievement: a remarkable lead performance, a dazzling display of directorial panache, a script of sublime wit or clarity. On other occasions, it’s the result of extraordinary collaboration. The Martian is one of these latter cases. Yes, Matt Damon is awfully good. But Matt Damon is always awfully good. Yes, director Ridley Scott has a terrific eye for the material. But he had a terrific eye in Prometheus as well, and that didn’t save it from being an utter mess. Yes, Drew Goddard’s screenplay is a sharp, nimble adaptation of the novel by Andrew Weir. But … you get the idea.
The Martian succeeds because everyone involved does his or her job, and does it superbly. There are no tedious backstories, no leaps of rampant illogic, no poorly cast performances, no tacked-on romantic subplots, no extended narrative lulls. The film is a profound testament to the rare—and underrated—virtue of simply not screwing anything up.
The story is a simple one. On a manned mission to Mars, the crew of the transplanetary vessel Hermes is surprised by a sudden, violent sandstorm that forces them to evacuate their landing site. In the midst of their frenetic escape, one crewmember appears to have been killed, and they leave him behind. But the crewmember is not actually dead, and he wakes to find himself abandoned and alone in the airless, inhospitable waste of the Red Planet. So that crewmember, Mark Watney (Damon), begins the slow, arduous chore of not allowing himself to die.
He’s the ship’s botanist, which helps, as he feeds himself in part with potatoes he grows and fertilizes with his own shit: the circle of life, compressed all the way down to a single individual. It’s almost two months before NASA notices changes at the landing site via satellite photo—wasn’t the rover on the other side of the habitat in the last picture?—and realizes that Watney is alive. It’s another couple of months before NASA decides to tell his old crewmates, sailing through the void back to Earth, that they left him stranded.
Not that there isn’t plenty for Watney to do during this time. In addition to the potatoes, there are the problems of water (“the good news is that I know the recipe,” Watney tells the recording camera that is the closest thing he has to a companion), of heat (never has a deteriorating plutonium core come in handier), and of finding a way to communicate with Earth. These tasks Watney undertakes with ingenuity and (mostly) good cheer. As he will explain the process later, “You do the math. You solve one problem. And then you solve another. And then another. Solve enough and you stay alive.”
And though Watney may be alone, he’s no longer abandoned. Back on Earth, NASA employees (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, and Donald Glover) are scrambling frantically to come up with a feasible rescue plan. So, too, are his former shipmates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie). Indeed, one of the most refreshing elements of The Martian is that it has no villain, no foil—apart from the inconceivable hardships of Mars, of course. There’s no craven crewmember on the Hermes who’d rather leave Watney behind, no penny-pinching bureaucrat back on Earth who says there’s not enough money for a rescue mission.
There are disagreements—some of them substantial—about the best course of action. But every character in the film is fully committed, often at substantial personal cost, to the goal of getting Watney home safe. (Even one of the United States’s global competitors offers its help.) This unanimity of purpose imbues the film with a rare generosity of spirit. The term “uplifting” might be appropriate here had it not fallen on such hard times.
How good is The Martian? Well, it’s good enough that I didn’t begrudge it the appropriation of Bowie’s “Starman,” which in a lesser film would be an act of criminal coyness. Indeed, despite its intermittent calamities and constant life-or-death tension, The Martian has a degree of humor uncharacteristic of a Scott film, including a running gag about the awfulness of the disco tracks that were left behind with Watney. (“Hot Stuff,” “Rock the Boat,” and “Love Train” all make appearances. Even under the circumstances, however, “Waterloo” remains a bridge too far.) But perhaps the movie’s best joke involves the love for J.R.R. Tolkien that is apparently encoded into the DNA of every living male nerd.
Damon is, as noted, excellent—but then, so is literally every member of the supporting cast. To call out any in particular would be an injustice to those left unmentioned. In this, the collaborators who put together the film—Scott, Goddard, the cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the entire cast, and on down the list—resemble the NASA folks and Hermes crewmembers of the movie itself: They are all pulling together toward the same goal, and doing so with extraordinary skill and tenacity. The result is, to an uncommon degree, a complete success.