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.