The Nerds Win in Ridley Scott’s Instant Sci-Fi Classic ‘The Martian’

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Math is magic in The Martian, Ridley Scott’s soaring, thrilling adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 debut novel of the same name. Rather than “Use the force,” the movie’s mantra is “Do the math,” a line spoken again and again as its NASA heroes devote extraordinary resources to rescuing an astronaut who has been marooned on Mars. It’s a story that extols the virtues of education and inventiveness over firepower and muscle mass; for my money, it’s the best superhero movie of the year.

The Martian isn’t shy about asking us to view its scientists as something akin to real-world Avengers. In fact, it goes so far as to blatantly invoke the spirit of Iron Man during its climax. Matt Damon certainly looks like he could fill out a skintight costume, at least in the film’s early scenes. He plays Mark Watney, a buff and beefy genius who’s been sent to Mars via the Hermes spacecraft to be very handsome while collecting samples of the planet’s soil. Watney and his fellow astronauts, led by Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis, are caught in a freak dust storm, though, and the crew is forced to abandon Watney when he’s knocked unconscious by flying debris and presumed dead.

He gets better, of course, having merely been impaled by a radio antenna that leaves a gruesome wound in his abdomen. His first order of business is patching himself up; once that ordeal is over, his real problems begin. Watney must somehow figure out how to grow food, make water, communicate with Earth, travel thousands of kilometers to the next NASA mission landing site, and otherwise circumvent the myriad ways that Mars could kill him at any given moment.

The Martian, beautifully photographed by Dariusz Wolski, is certainly a survival story, then, and it’s a lively heir to the king of castaways, Robinson Crusoe (both the Earth- and Mars-bound incarnations of Daniel Defoe’s classic hero). Watney’s tribulations are never less than riveting, in part because both the character and the actor playing him are singularly charming—how do you not like a guy who cracks jokes after he’s blown himself up?

The setup might sound like a one-man show, and there are certainly lengthy stretches where the film rests solely on Damon’s capable shoulders. But where the story really takes flight is when the action begins to vault from one location to another—besides Mars, the film plays out at Houston Space Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the headquarters of China’s National Space Administration, and aboard the Hermes as it drifts through deep space. The film’s universe is in a constant state of expansion as more and more people—and nations—join the endeavor to save Watney. He might be stranded on an uninhabited planet, but he’s never really alone.

Scott has always had a knack for savvy casting, and it’s never served him better than in The Martian. Besides Damon and Chastain, both of whom give pitch-perfect performances, there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as the director of Mars missions; Kristen Wiig as NASA’s put-upon media director; Jeff Daniels as the agency’s head honcho; and Donald Glover as a hipster brainiac who solves one of the story’s biggest problems by—you guessed it—“doing the math.” The list goes on and on; there are so many characters that the film has no choice but to tick off their names and titles on screen as we meet them.

And yet the movie never feels anything less than intensely personal and, above all, human. At one point, Watney devises an ingenious (and literally explosive) way to distill water from rocket fuel. There’s a similar sort of alchemy at work on a broader scale in The Martian: This is a story that distills and concentrates humanity to its purest, highest nature. There are plenty of disagreements among the characters, but everyone in the film is dedicated to saving Watney. There’s not a single atom of cynicism in The Martian—no weak link in the team, no bad guy, no heartless system, no one with ulterior motives. It’s a remarkably old-fashioned bit of storytelling, and couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a surprising turnaround for Scott, whose 1979 classic, Alien, gave us one of the bleakest and most terrifying visions of outer space ever committed to film.

Maybe Scott is going soft in his old age, or maybe I am. I once had a screenwriting teacher who was fond of pointing out that the best drama happens when everyone is right. The Martian is a stirring reminder that, every now and then, the best drama happens when everyone is good.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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