Of all the stanning Hollywood has been doing for NASA in the last few years, from Gravity to Interstellar to Tomorrowland, The Martian is, by many kilometers, the nerdiest.
And that's also the reason it's the best.
Forget all those themes of rebirth and manifest destiny and utopia and the occasional weird undercurrent of restoring American greatness — The Martian is about science, and it is about math, things those other movies handwaved their way past in order to get to the flashier parts about bravery and the human spirit. Mark Watney (Matt Damon at his most unassumingly lovable), the astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and left for dead in the opening sequence of The Martian, has plenty of bravery and spirit, but that's not the point of his story. He decides he wants to live, that he's going to live, and after that, the focus is on how he goes about doing that on an inhospitable planet years from rescue.
The Martian, directed by the unpredictable Ridley Scott, is an exciting and sometimes very funny movie that's stirringly confident that something like the growing of crops and the extending of battery life can be suspenseful and dramatic when they're happening on Mars and are a matter of life and death.
The film, based on Andy Weir's web serial turned best-selling novel of the same name and adapted to screen by The Cabin in the Woods' Drew Goddard, is technically science fiction, in the sense that it involves technology more advanced than our own and in that it's literally fiction about science. But its characters and its world feel otherwise comfortably contemporary. Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the head of NASA, deals with issues of funding and media coverage. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the commander of the Ares 3 mission, has a love of disco music that provides the movie with an amusing throwback soundtrack.
And Mark? Mark is a dork who, when asked for a photo for PR rep Annie Rose (Kristen Wiig), strikes a Fonz pose, and who says things like "Mars will come to fear my botany powers!" But that irrepressibility in the face of terrible odds becomes the kind of thing that can squeeze a few tears out of you. Instead of spiraling into despair, Mark, sometimes through visible force of will, fondly mocks his fellow crewmembers' choice of retro games (Zork II) and explains his problem-solving process in not always graspable detail into a video log that no one might ever see, his version of Cast Away's Wilson.
But unlike Tom Hanks's Chuck Noland, Mark is never really alone. He gets in communication with NASA and a group of people on the ground and in space that include Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, and Mackenzie Davis. The multi-pronged rescue attempt reveals The Martian to be a wide-reaching ensemble film.
The Martian doesn't invent an antagonist — space is more than enough of one. And it doesn't fill time with screenwriterly cul-de-sacs in which there are misunderstandings and miscommunications. Mark understands immediately why he was left behind and accepts it, just as Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) quickly figures out what Mark is up to when he heads away from the habitat in which he's been living toward another area of the planet. The narrative efficiency of these choices serves as a nice underlining of the characters' intelligence, which is demonstrated in actions instead of accessories or vocabulary. A scene in which characters take a vote on a big decision is thoughtful and emotional while also being so free of the expected bickering that it's practically an applause moment.
The Martian is a sprawling, international adventure with some thrilling space sequences and some windows in which wonder is allowed to filter through, but its satisfactions are really those of a workplace drama. It's ultimately about people who are great at and who love their jobs, love them enough to risk death and to feel lucky to have had the chance, even in the face of those odds. For a movie that avoids the grandstanding of something like Interstellar, in which Damon and Chastain also starred, The Martian turns out to be almost shockingly poignant in its affirmation not of a lone great man but of what can be done when capable people work together, one step at a time.