I haven’t read the novel by Andy Weir that this film is adapted from, so I don’t know how good of an adaptation it is. What it made me think of was other films, perhaps most whimsically Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which as the title implies is also about a man stranded on Mars. This one lacks the aliens, however. It also made me thing of Contagion (2011), which is much different in tone but also valorizes science and international cooperation. It was also hard not to see some similarities to Gravity (2013), which is another tale of an astronaut surviving one life-threatening crisis after another, although Gravity has a much more spiritual tone to it. But The Martian actually seems unique in a number of ways, perhaps most notably in the way it presents itself as a series of puzzles to be solved scientifically and without a lot of melodrama or dramatic or psychological tension. The thing that surprised me a little bit is how emotionally effective it was without some of the standard dramatic suspense.
The story is how one crew member on a manned expedition to Mars is left behind when the mission is aborted due to an unexpected storm. He’s left with minimal supplies, and he has to find a way to survive until a rescue mission can come for him. The bulk of the movie is an exploration of the problems he faces (how to supply himself with food, how to contact Mission Control without a radio, etc) and the solutions he comes up with. One of the ways the film creates an emotional investment in the story is through its evocation of the human ability to solve problems. This probably won’t appeal to everyone, especially since it’s not character-driven and thus is pretty abstract, but it’s safe to say that a lot of science fiction fans find this kind of thing extremely appealing. When it becomes a matter of all the greatest scientific minds on Earth working on the problems in a cooperative way, it’s a very powerful evocation of a kind of internationalist idealism and optimism. That’s the part that reminded me of Contagion, but The Martian is completely lacking the darker acknowledgement of human paranoia and irrationality and selfishness found in Contagion. It may not be as overtly spiritual/redemptive as Gravity, but it’s just as much a feel-good, can-do movie. Although I have to say, on that front, that the wise-cracking sense of humor in The Martian didn’t always work for me. It seemed a little forced at times.
Visually I found it splendid. I saw it in 3D, and I loved the way it used that technology to create a sense of the vast, majestic emptiness of the landscape. There was a curious shot early on in which the camera seemed to be moving slightly sideways and the features of the landscape seemed to be flattened into shifting layers like those of a scientific pop-up book, which I found quite strange and beautiful. What is perhaps most remarkable about the movie visually is that it doesn’t look like any other science fiction film I can think of, possibly because it’s the first film to try to capture the Mars we’ve seen in photographs from various probes. It’s a very realistic look that’s unusual in a science fiction movie, giving it an almost documentary look that seems fitting for the procedural nature of the story. You can almost imagine that it’s a PBS show about growing a garden on Mars.
Because I didn’t always connect with the sense of humor and because of the lack of suspense/thriller tropes, there was a part of me that was surprised by how powerful I found the climax. As I said earlier, I’m not completely sure how Ridley Scott and his merry crew pulled that off. There are some acts of heroism, but for the most part it’s a celebration of ingenuity rather than heroism. That seems unusual, and maybe that’s the secret ingredient that made this one surprisingly appealing.