Adventure/Sci-fi, 144 Minutes, 2015
I have no way to be impartial about this film. It’s a movie celebrating the drive and utility of science and, more broadly, intelligence in general. When it challenges its characters, it also challenges its audience. How could I begin to dislike a movie that says, without snark or caveat: “Smart is goddamn sexy.”
Similar to last year’s Gravity [My Review] and the lesser known, but more fantastical, Europa Report [My Review], this is hard science fiction that explores the extremes of human possibility. Like those, there are some liberties taken, but none that risk spoiling the sense of achievement or threaten to diminish the human efforts of our heroes. The movie puts them through hell and they pull off miracles, but nothing happens that couldn’t actually happen.
Set during a series of manned missions to Mars, the movie strands Mark Watney (Matt Damon [IMDB], apologizing for his character in Interstellar [My Review]), alone on Mars. A storm forces his team to abandon the mission and, while moving to the launch vehicle, Mark is struck by debris and presumed dead. When he wakes up alone and unable to contact home, he must leverage the supplies meant for a 30 day mission to survive until a rescue can be mounted: four years later.
Damon brings a refreshing openness and warmth to the role. Watney is, obviously, terrified about his situation. His will to live is powerful, but means nothing without a plan. His natural problem solving skills, filtered through his training and education, allow him to identify and prioritize the myriad problems that he faces and meet each one in turn. Nerd cliches are ignored: Watney feels real.
Working the problem doesn’t rely solely on Watney. The teams at NASA and the JPL are both well and impressively represented. The technical challenges they face are different than Watney’s, but no less difficult or important to his survival. The dedication of the teams on the ground ring true: they will move heaven and earth. The script touches on the bureaucratic problems inherent in the situation, but never devolves to preaching. There are no trite, formulaic “bad guys” here: this is humanity versus a cold, unblinking universe. Period.
Importantly, the movie doesn’t rely on technical jargon or even understanding. Those interested will be happy to know that care was taken to ensure that all of the science is correct, but those looking for a simple, story of human perseverance will be pleased as well.
Damon gives a stand-out, multi-layered performance. The large, impeccably chosen supporting cast – including Jessica Chastain [IMDB], Jeff Daniels [IMDB], Chiwetel Ejiofor [IMDB] and many others – is just as impressive. The relationships ring true and are pertinent to the story. Nothing feels tacked on. The clear and deliberate pacing maintains interest and tensions without become melodramatic or overwrought.
The way the story revels in cleverness is infectious. We watched the movie, then watched it again the next day just because. It’s that good. Smart is sexy.