Come home, Ridley Scott. All is forgiven for Prometheus.
You don’t often see an awesome movie about competence. But that’s what “The Martian” is--a stirring tribute to not just science, but to the oft-maligned soul of the supposedly unimaginative ideal of competence. To the belief that details matter, that it’s important for a person to have some actual idea what they’re talking about.
The movie itself epitomizes that point. It’s relentlessly competent, from Matt Damon’s portrayal of the beleaguered yet indomitable protagonist, to the well cast and acted supporting players, from the cinematography to the writing, from its eye for detail to its love of vast panoramas. And I’ll be darned if all that competence doesn’t snowball until you find yourself thoroughly engaged with what becomes an excellent piece of entertainment. I enjoyed it. My family enjoyed it, even the eight-year-old. And it fully deserves that 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Most people reading this will be familiar with the 2011 novel by Andy Weir from which this movie comes. The movie itself has been reviewed to death, so I won’t waste my time on a blow by blow. It’s basically Robinson Crusoe in space merged with Apollo 13. Botanist Mark Watney is presumed dead and left behind when a Mars mission must evacuate in the face of a horrific dust storm. Only he’s not dead. He’s just ****ed.
So how do you survive on Mars with only your wits and a structure designed to last for 31 days? How does NASA figure out you’re alive at all? How do you talk to each other? And, the biggest question of all, how can a rescue mission be mounted while it still matters? This movie has answers for all that and more. Some of the science falls apart a bit if you poke hard at it, but it’s presented with more than enough craft to justify suspending disbelief.
It’s funny, too. Watney’s black humor and pointed observations had me laughing out loud several times. But most of all, it’s about the true soul of competence—humility and decency. “The Martian” appeals to higher instincts than simple survival, to the idea that maybe we can count on each other when the chips are down. That maybe that whole Enlightenment thing wasn’t for nought, no matter how much “The Walking Dead” says otherwise.