Andy Weir's novel The Martian, released serially in 2011, then bought and re-published in 2014, was an instant sci-fi sensation. Described in cinematic terms as Apollo 13-meets-Cast Away (both, ironically enough, starring Tom Hanks), the book was not only a celebration of human ingenuity in the face of insurmountable odds, but was also a nerdtastic celebration of real (or at least theoretically real) science, as opposed to the warp drives and weaponry of hard sci-fi space operas.
As a film, directed by outer-space-movie vet Ridley Scott (Alien, Prometheus) and starring Matt Damon, the magic of the book is successfully transposed to the screen. It's ultimately a feel-good film, with a huge ensemble cast of borderline A-listers and an uplifting message of cooperation and courage. It opens Friday at theaters everywhere.
Damon is astronaut-botanist Mark Watney. He's collecting soil samples on the surface of Mars when his mission is aborted due to a massive approaching dust storm. Headed back to his ship, Watney is blown away from the rest of his crew (captained by Jessica Chastain and peopled by Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and the Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan) and is left for dead on Mars' rocky and inhospitable surface.
Back on Earth, NASA is both alarmed and elated, days later, to discover that Watney is alive. NASA director (Jeff Daniels), Mars director (Chiwetel Ejiofor), PR director (Kristen Wiig), indeterminate outer space authority (Sean Bean), caffeinated astrophysicist (Donald Glover) and a team of dogged engineers contrive various ways to communicate with Watney and strategize how to bring him home, all of which occurs with the knowledge that any mishap would surely guarantee Watney's death.
Nonetheless, Watney is a calm, resourceful man of science on the surface of Mars. He sportingly tackles one problem at a time and somehow maintains a chipper joie de vivre despite what would be interpreted by anyone else as certain death. He uses his own excrement to fertilize the Mars soil and grow a bumper crop of potatoes; he creates water by heating various excess gasses in assorted tubes; he forages for bygone detritus to repurpose and reuse as energy sources. And unlike Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Watney is in perpetual communication with cameras or chatting digitally with scientists back on Earth.
The improbability of it all only occasionally drifts into ridiculous territory, and the script's commitment to wit makes the viewing experience much less intense than, for instance, Gravity. A bit of overplotting and politicking among the NASA personalities may have been true to the source material, but it left the screen version somewhat overburdened with characters, especially when only one of them is at its center.