Based on the novel by Andy Weir, Ridley Scott’s The Martian is one of those rare science fiction blockbusters where the star-studded cast takes a backseat to the science itself. When a violent storm interrupts a team of NASA astronauts conducting research on Mars, the evacuating crew reluctantly leave Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who was hit flying by debris from their own antenna, behind under the presumption that he is dead. Little do they know that Watney has actually survived the freak accident and is stranded on the arid planet. As death looks imminent, he only has a limited food supply available, Watney decides to use his botanist expertise to “science the shit” out of everything in hopes of surviving until the next mission crew arrives in four years time.
Using his ingenuity, Watney not only manages to grow new food sources, but also figures out how to best utilize the limited resources he has around him. This provides him with temporary solutions to the massive predicament he finds himself in. When NASA discovers that Watney is indeed still alive they scramble to come up with a way to bring the stranded astronaut home. However, this task proves to be increasingly difficult as the time sensitive nature of the mission, Mars’ complicated environment, and a whole host of other dangers threaten to derail their plans.
The Martian is a film that will excite and entertain science enthusiasts in the same way comic book fans get giddy over superhero movies. Science is not simply a tool for saving Watney’s life, Scott’s film makes it downright cool. Playing like a botanist version of MacGyver, the ingenious ways in which Watney, and the folks at NASA, manage to tackle each new problem that arises is exhilarating to watch. Similar to the impact the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation had on forensic science, it would not be shocking to see enrollment in science-based courses skyrocket in the next few years as a result of this film.
At times the film gets a little too caught up in explaining everything that Watney and the folks at NASA are doing. While it is understandable that The Martian has to be accessible enough for everyone, there are situations where one wishes Scott and company had taken a less is more approach. The film rarely gives the audience a chance to try and figure out what Watney is attempting to do. Instead they are told what will happen and are asked to simply watch whether the process unfolds successfully or not.
Fortunately, the film is engaging enough that it never feels like it is giving the audience a science 101 style lecture. Matt Damon does a wonderful job of showcasing Watney’s “I am the greatest botanist on the planet” brand of cockiness, while still presenting the character’s vulnerable side. Though Damon’s character never hits the same emotional resonance as Tom Hank’s Chuck Noland in Cast Away, he still manages to make the audience care about his plight. Which is actually quite an accomplishment considering the number of moving parts in this film. Aside from Watney’s story arc, there is also the inner conflict amongst the folks at NASA (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, etc.) and the thread involving Watney’s homebound crew (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan).
While it may not always juggle its various balls in the air smoothly, there is no denying that The Martian is one thrilling film. Similar to kids running wild in a candy, science lovers will be on a sugar high from beginning to end.
Thursday, September 17, 3:00 PM, Princess of Wales
Friday, September 18, 6:00 PM, TIFF Bell Light Box
Ticket information can be found at the TIFF website.