The Martian—As in 1964’s excellent Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Ridley Scott’s latest maroons an American astronaut on the Red Planet and lets him figure out how to stay alive. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, a self-described space nerd who originally self-published the well-researched “hard sci-fi” tale online.
Much of the book consists of first-person narration by our hero, Mark Watney, who has been lost in a sandstorm and thought dead by his fellow astronauts during an evacuation. Watney logs his initially futile-seeming survival efforts—figuring out how to grow potatoes in lifeless Martian soil, how to reestablish communication with NASA, etc.—for posterity, along with copious whistling-in-the-dark wisecracks. When the book is the monologues of the desperate-yet-snarky Watney it’s a terrific read; later, when Weir shifts the scene to the rescue efforts back on Earth, his touch is less assured.
But The Martian is a real achievement, and first-rate movie source material, and Scott makes it convincing and absorbing. Or, rather, he creates the necessary polished setting for his leading man to make it convincing and absorbing. I heard that Matt Damon was playing the title role before I started Weir’s novel, with the result that I heard Damon’s voice in my head the whole time I was reading Watney’s narrative.
But I think I would have heard something very close to his voice anyway. There are other solid performances in the cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA honcho, but this is potentially the role of Damon’s career, Jason Bourne notwithstanding. I’m not sure any part he’s played has fit his persona like a spacesuit quite like this boyish, decent-hearted yet smart-ass Tom Swift.
For all Weir’s inventiveness and storytelling flair, his book is so practical-minded that it’s a bit lacking in otherwordly wonder. Scott can help here, bringing an eerie, lonely feel to the Martian landscapes without pushing it. On the downside, he can’t resist embellishing the climactic scenes with unnecessary and hokey derring-do. It’s the movie’s only significant misstep (on its own terms), and it’s forgivable.
The Martian does have an eccentricity, however: The cultural references are persistently retro even for our time, much less for a story set, presumably, decades from now. The mission Commander (Jessica Chastain) is a geek for ‘70s pop, so Mark is stranded with her collection of disco music and Happy Days reruns for entertainment. This leads to some nostalgic numbers for Boomers on the soundtrack, including one, over the end titles, that in context is particularly funny and apt.