The Martian is a tense, smart, and thoughtful sci-fi thriller that should also prove to be a massive crowd pleaser. Pretty much everyone should get what they wanted out of the experience. The general audience looking to be thrilled and entertained should be more than satisfied with a tautly structured, suspense-filled, and inspirational story about people banding together to save the life of a fellow human against all odds.
The science nerds who complained about the lack of scientific credibility in Gravity, another space adventure that focused on an astronaut trying to make it back to Earth, should be happy that The Martian not only contains a buttload of credible science, it also cleverly uses science-based problems as the main buildup of conflict within the story. It should be quickly noted that I still love Gravity, which was constructed more as a feature-length theme park ride than a strictly scientifically accurate story to begin with, but whatevs.
Visually oriented fans of gorgeous science fiction should be mesmerized by not only the awe-inspiring panoramic shots of the desolate red planet, but the grounded yet impressive depiction of our idealistic near-future space program. And finally, director Ridley Scott must have been very satisfied with the fact that he finally got to pay homage to his favorite movie, the film that made him want to become a director in the first place, 2001: A Space Odyssey, without having to insert xenomorphs or mute albino bodybuilders into the deal.
So everyone's happy, except for me of course, since I have a sneaking suspicion that critics who either didn't understand or weren't open-minded enough to appreciate the third act of Christopher Nolan's modern hard sci-fi masterpiece Interstellar will write stupid shit like "This is the movie Interstellar tried to be but failed", which will leave me with no choice but to find out where they live and gently murder them in their sleep. Look folks, both The Martian and Interstellar are about space, and both depict a character played by Matt Damon stranded on a planet, and that's where the similarities end.
Interstellar is a daring exploration of the next stage in human evolution, told through the close bond between a father and daughter, and will only get better upon subsequent viewings. The Martian is an expertly constructed survival tale that focuses on plot, mystery, and suspense to drive the narrative forward in a fast-paced and always engaging manner, but once you experience it and know how it ends, repeated viewings won't likely bear more fruit.
Even though the third act of The Martian contains some of the most genuinely breathtaking edge-of-your-seat suspense I've experienced this year, I have to confess that the film begins with a shaky first act. After botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars following a botched research mission, he refuses to give up and tries to find a way to survive until the next mission lands in four years. As Mark's video logs explain how he plans on surviving, while letting the filmmakers come up with a smart way to get around pages upon pages of dry exposition, a tale of human ingenuity and willingness to survive against all odds begin to form.
Unfortunately all of that goodwill goes into the toilet since Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard decide to intercut the initial Mars scenes with sequences that take place in Nasa back on Earth, where a group of scientists played by an impressive cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean, work around the clock to come up with a plan to either rescue Mark, or to send him more supplies so he can survive until the next mission lands on the planet. These sequences unfortunately suck the tension right out of the Mars scenes since the audience is aware that people on Earth know that Mark's still alive, which destroys the audience's desire to empathize with Mark's feelings of isolation.
When Mark's finally able to communicate with Nasa through some ingenious innovations, and the team of astronauts on their way back from the Mars mission also gets in on the rescue mission, that's when The Martian turns into an exciting survival thriller that doesn't let up the tension until the very end. I especially appreciated that every bit of seemingly insurmountable conflict brought up by the story was based on science and math, and not sensationalist physical conflict motivated by the need to insert big budget special effects set pieces into such a simple but effective premise.
The Martian's screenplay is pretty much completely driven by scientific exposition, which leaves very little space for inserting a relatable human aspect to the story. In that sense, Goddard and Scott do an amazing job easing in quick but efficient character elements that create a human connection between the characters, such as Mark's hatred for his mission commander Melissa's (Jessica Chastain) obsession with 70s disco, which is the only type of music Mark's stuck listening to while stranded on Mars.
The Martian is an imperfect but highly effective and engaging blend of smart science fiction and a suspenseful race against the clock thriller. It's the best Ridley Scott film in at least a decade or so, as well as an adequate apology for the Prometheus debacle.