When was the last time a movie was just, you know, lovable? Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe—all the more so because its lovability was so unexpected, coming as it did from the Marvel comic book movie factory. The same is true of The Martian, a movie so spectacularly winsome it’s almost beyond criticism. How could this have happened with this piece of hard science fiction, full of talk about orbiting distances and vectors and botany, derived from a nerdy novel first published chapter by chapter on the writer Andy Weir’s blog?
The Martian is about a man stranded on the Red Planet, which is hardly the sort of plot you expect will leave you in a state of near-bliss at the end. That sure wasn’t the case with the somewhat similar Cast Away, which told the story of the marooning of Tom Hanks on a South Sea island; nobody left the theater after that powerfully intense study of loneliness and isolation with a smile on his face.
Nor was there any reason to expect much from its director, the 77-year-old Ridley Scott, who has spent the past decade making an almost unrivaled procession of stinkers (A Good Year, Body of Lies, Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, Exodus, The Counselor). But it just goes to show what can happen when a filmmaker as accomplished and visually sophisticated as Scott finally gets his hands on a good script (by Drew Goddard) and succeeds in gathering a large and perfect cast led by the (always quietly and unshowily) splendid Matt Damon.
But even all these elements, brought together, wouldn’t normally result in The Martian being lovable. No, what makes it lovable is that it’s a work of hard science fiction about a man stranded on Mars that chooses not to stress the existential agony of his solitude, but rather the conscious and brave decision made by Damon’s character, Mark Watney, to evade despair and use everything he knows and everything he’s learned and everything that he has at hand to keep himself alive.
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” he says in one of the narrative logs he keeps of his four-year trial. Damon builds his character through these monologues, which is a very tricky acting challenge and one he pulls off magnificently. Damon and the creative team (especially Andy Weir, author of the original novel) have made Watney a classic old-fashioned astronaut—corny, jokey, not all that introspective, a doer rather than a ruminator. Watney may be a fictional character, and the things that happen to him may never have happened to anyone, but still, The Martian is one of the most inspiring movies I’ve ever seen.
His humorous determination proves to be an inspiration to people back on earth as well, scores of whom dedicate themselves to figuring out how to launch a rescue mission before he runs out of food. And here again The Martian does something unexpected that elevates it from being a gripping race against time into something more like (you may groan prospectively at the cliché I’m about to use) a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. Simply put: There are no bad guys. The movie wisely does not attempt to manufacture silly conflicts because the central concept is itself so awesome. As Watney says, everything he does is being done for the first time in four billion years, and that is drama enough—that, and the way he survives, and what has to happen for him to get back home.
There is only one narrative mistake I can think of. The chief PR person at NASA (Kristin Wiig) is annoyed when, in history’s first interplanetary photo shoot, Watney ends up posing like the Fonz on Happy Days (one of the few entertainments he has as a diversion, along with disco music from the 1970s). That’s just ridiculous. She, and the world, would swoon at such a thing—just as the audience at The Martian does, at that little bit and dozens more like it in this exhilarating feat of popular storytelling.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.