When it comes to edge-of-your-seat suspense, The Martian is in a class of its own. Ridley Scott’s new movie, in theaters today, is a top-notch survival thriller, full of twists and turns that’ll make you catch your breath. It’s the most exciting movie in ages. Plus it’ll make you want to be an astronaut when you grow up.
There are basically no spoilers in this review, other than the film’s basic premise.
On the surface, The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe-type deal about a guy stranded alone on Mars, having to survive by his wits. He gets by with a copious amount of goofy humor, along with his MacGyver-y can-do spirit. But that description doesn’t prepare you for how much this movie, based on the runaway hit book by Andy Weir, keeps ratcheting up the tension and twisting the knife.
Every time something goes wrong for the abandoned astronaut Mark Watney, it’s a fresh gut-punch, and Scott keeps finding ways to remind you of just how much of a knife-edge Watney’s survival is on. And meanwhile, star Matt Damon, playing Watney, is at his most relatable and really sells the graveyard jokeyness of the guy who’s having to come up with outlandish ideas to keep himself alive. But Damon also deserves a ton of credit for capturing the loneliness, terror and frustration of the guy who’s been left for dead through nobody’s fault.
And Damon’s co-star is also brilliant: Mars, and the Martian landscape. The sense of vastness, juxtaposed with claustrophobia, keeps us aware of just how screwed this guy is. Scott keeps pulling in tight on Damon (plus the omniscient POV is intercut with “suitcam” and other “found footage”) so that the film feels intimate, but then it’s more of a jolt when the camera pulls back and we see the wasteland around him. Mars, in this film, is a known quantity, with its features mapped and full of hidden treasures for Watney to exploit—but it’s also unpredictable and capricious. And meanwhile, we also visit Watney’s crewmembers aboard their Ares vessel, with its winding corridors and cramped crew quarters.
All the best space movies have this sense of the closeness and fragility of artificial environments, and the vastness and deadliness of space and other planets. Scott helped pioneer that visual language back in Alien, and here he’s in full control of it.
What’s interesting, this time around, is the interplay between the mounting sense of danger and the increasing beauty. The film starts out with a long sweep across the rocky Martian landscape, with no signs of human visitation at all. But Scott saves the really gorgeous shots of Mars for the second half of the movie, when the intensity and danger have reached fever-pitch levels—including long shots of the planet’s surface from space, looking totally luminous. As if we can only really appreciate the beauty of this other world when we’re fully aware of how much it can kill us.
And this is the rare movie that it might not be a total waste of time to see in 3D, because some of those long shots of Mars rely on 3D for some of their effect, and some of the space sequences use 3D in a clever way—one which feels very much inspired by the somewhat similar movie Gravity.
And meanwhile, the sound design in this movie is phenomenal. The fact that this film is as nail-biting as it is owes as much to the clever use of muffled sounds, creaks and thuds as anything else. As much as any horror movie, The Martian uses sound to keep teasing you with the sense of danger just outside your frame of vision, and keeps you waiting for the next scare to come along.
The plot twists in The Martian are just as intense as the ones in any thriller, but they are rooted in science, rather than random plot devices. All of the storytelling energy that might otherwise go into deciphering clues from a serial killer or defusing a bomb goes, instead, into solving physics problems and figuring out how to get around inexorable requirements.
The result is that this is not just a movie about heroic scientists—it’s a movie in which problem-solving is a never-ending thrill. When people say that this film is a love letter to science, they mean first and foremost that the process of figuring shit out and making the seemingly impossible happen is shown at its absolute most badass.
I’m sure the science is iffy here and there. But the fact that this movie takes seriously the immense travel times between Earth and Mars, and the huge challenges of things like orbital mechanics and trajectories and fuel conservation, is just amazing. Thanks to an all-star cast at NASA HQ that includes people like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover and Sean Bean, you come away with the sense that astrophysicists are the biggest rock stars. Also, Watney’s fellow astronauts, played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and others, are the right mixture of sober professionals and jokey daredevils.
It’s hard not to feel as though Ridley Scott is making up for his previous space movie, the embarassing Prometheus. Here, the beautiful space and exoplanet imagery are pressed into the service of a rock-solid story. Plus instead of some bullshit Hollywood thing of (not really) answering “Big Questions” of why we’re here and what it’s all about, The Martian actually does offer a pretty good answer to why humans are here: to explore, to build, to go further. No albino male strippers required.
The highest compliment I can pay The Martian is that it kept me hunched on the edge of my seat with tension—but also, it made me desperately want to be an astronaut when I grow up. I have a feeling this movie will convert a whole new generation of smart young people to believing that space exploration, in all its difficulty and grandeur, is the coolest thing anyone could possibly do. And that’s another reason to be thrilled with The Martian.