Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is living the dream: he’s an astronaut. Not only is he an astronaut, he’s on a manned mission which is exploring Mars. Unfortunately, he can’t live out every little kid’s fantasy for long: the mission detects an extremely powerful sandstorm heading straight towards the mission’s home base. Despite their attempts to weather it, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to abort the mission and return to Earth. But during the evacuation, Watney is struck by debris and lost. The crew is unable to recover him in time and they leave without him; NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) sadly announces to the world that Watney was killed on Mars.
But of course, he didn’t. Barely surviving due to a piece of debris which impaled him (but also sealed shut his space suit) Watney wakes up to find his team gone and himself all alone on an entire planet. From then on, it’s a struggle for him to survive on a dead planet with no back up, no plan B, and nothing to listen to but Commander Lewis’ awful disco music.
The first thing I have to say about The Martian is that it is quite likely the nerdiest movie ever made. As you can likely surmise from my friend’s description of the book, there is a huge amount of exposition and explanation of the mechanical and scientific details about exactly how Watney survives. But instead of making the movie boring and tedious, it’s actually done in a way that is readily accessible and actually very interesting. I know very little about any of the science behind the stuff in the movie (like I said, I’m a poly-sci major) but I easily understood even the fairly technically complex sections of the film. To be fair, I am a person who watched Cosmos because I think science is really cool, but it’s still highly accessible.
The reason for this is that the movie is both very well acted and actually pretty funny. Matt Damon makes sure that Watney never feels like a stuffy intellectual; he makes a lot of good jokes. Which makes sense, since astronauts crack jokes too. One of the running gags is how the only music Watney has to listen to is the 70s pop that Chastain’s character loves (come to think of it, I wonder if that’s a subtle take that at Guardians of the Galaxy…) On the one hand it keeps the science from dragging the movie down, but it’s also implied that he uses his sense of humor to keep himself sane. Damon is very funny and clever during Watney’s high points but also excellently portrays him during his low points, as he starts to go a little crazy due to the extreme stress of the situation and the fact that he is alone on literally an entire planet. The supporting cast also does a fantastic job, from the aforementioned Jessica Chastain and Jeff Daniels to Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean. However, Damon is clearly the star of the show.
The movie also works because not only is it a fantastically geeky sci-fi flick but because it’s a very solid survival film. The obvious comparison is to Gravity a couple of years ago, but in terms of tone and pacing I think it’s closer to Apollo 13. Sure, it’s a bit predictable, but it’s still fantastically suspenseful, with all the complex technology providing excellent opportunities to create problems by failing at inopportune times. And boy, do things fail, because no matter how technically and scientifically competent Watney is things still go very wrong. And of course, the special effects used to create the Martian landscape are just gorgeous.
So yes, The Martian does have a ton of exposition, and it’s extremely geeky. Whether those are positive or negative points will vary much depending on the person, but even if it’s the latter in your own case you shouldn’t dismiss this movie. It’s a great science fiction movie and a great survival movie. It’s quite funny, and the casting is great. And if you happen to have even a slight interest in science, engineering, or space travel, you will find this absolutely fascinating. All in all, I would say The Martian is another science fiction jewel in Ridley Scott’s collection.