If you were to ask me my personality type in second grade, I would quickly respond that it was an even split between Donatello and Raphael. That's how we measured things. Don was the brains and Raph was the jokes, and these two simple traits are what I rooted for and related to growing up in all the vast media I consumed. I'm guessing author Andy Weir was the same way, because The Martian hits those narrative kinks hard – and its protagonist, Mark Watney, is a perfect Donraphatello.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by part of a satellite during a sandstorm on Mars, and is reluctantly left for dead by his crew. When Watney comes to, he's alone on Mars with limited supplies and no communication, a botanist stranded on an unsympathetic alien world.
The Martian is a love letter to science. That's the unavoidable turn of phrase, verbatim how Drew Goddard (Netflix's Daredevil, Cabin in the Woods) chose to interpret into screenplay Andy Weir's novel of the same intent. Science isn't scene dressing – it progresses the story, and it is the story. Problems arise and problems are solved, and through doing so we learn about the characters. Intelligence is rewarded. You know that one sole smart scientist in a movie that gets what's really happening an hour before anyone will listen to him? This movie is populated with those scientists, a world where they are in control.
To emphasize the isolation, we spend a lot of time with Mark Watney, especially in the first act or so. NASA is reacting back on Earth, first to his death and then to the discovery that he might be alive, but The Martian hinges on Matt Damon's performance. Damon manages to be a wise-ass that can back it up with genuine smarts, and I thought he nailed it. So much so that when we check back to the ensemble cast back on Earth after long stretches, there's a little drop off at first. Watney is constantly tested and you're always behind him. My guess is that the book deals much more with the psychological tolls, but there's enough in the performance to get the idea across.
In charge of NASA is Dumb and Dumber's Jeff Daniels (sorry, been waiting to say that), tasked with figuring out and performing a rescue operation while avoiding a PR nightmare. As an administrator in this position, he comes off as an antagonist, but not a villain. No mustache twirling, not a Weyland-Yutani scumbag. Conflict through a clash of motivation, going tit for tat with Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor while Kristen Wiig makes her concerned face. Plenty of moving pieces keep things interesting at ground control. I particularly enjoyed Benedict Wong and all the crap piled on him and his team. Something about the command center sections reminded me of Jurassic Park when things go down and a lot is being done behind computer monitors, yet it still stays interesting.
Then there's the Hermes III crew, the one that left Watney, led by Jessica Chastain. For being relegated to mostly about the beginning and end of the movie, they're distinct enough characters and click as a unit to maintain an emotional connection. Michael Peña makes a lovable bestie for Watney, although it was hard to believe he was an astronaut after being the doof/comedic heart of Ant-Man just months ago.
Another funnyman, Donald Glover (Community), plays a weirdo genius who, even though I didn't like his plot use, is of course hilarious as he runs around NASA like a weirdo genius.
On to the nit picks. The only science that bugged me was the lack of gravity difference on Mars. I'm not a scientist (stop asking if I'm a scientist), but this is the kind of thing that stands out in the same way long hair not moving in a windy scene does. The Martian is about science, after all. Jeff Daniels said in an interview, “No movie has made science look sexier.” Certainly the mission statement. This only happened once or twice, but the rare times subtlety was replaced with “look how cool science is, kids!” led to an eye roll. It's too bad because most of the explanations are done so well, but there's the occasional this or that that I felt could've stayed in the book. Again, nit picking.
The only thing that did genuinely detract wasn't how Hollywood everything on Earth looked by itself (the command centers, the pretty actors, etc.), but rather the combination of that with what felt like a rushed attempt at a big finish for back home to match what was happening in space. What I mean is, while the Watney climax was absolutely thrilling, a few brief story decisions plus the perfect Hollywood command center set – along with the masses gathered on the streets of major cities watching big screens – felt like every disaster movie ending ever. Which is a shame. Part of that is because The Martian (albeit wisely) doesn't spend much time showing how the media is informing the public, so seeing the world watching (even though we were told the world was watching) seemed out of nowhere.
Ridley Scott's direction was pretty while not in the way. Which is good, since he was more concerned with serving the characters than dazzling the audience. When it came time though, like the opening sandstorm and the Hermes crew moving elegantly around the craft, it's still a pleasure, and I do regret not seeing those martian vistas in 3D.
The most curious thing to me was how Harry Gregson-Williams' score is sprinkled with audio cues that sound like they're straight out of Aliens. Not Alien, the movie Ridley Scott directed. Aliens. I don't like fan theories, but I do wonder if Scott wanted to imply The Martian was set in the same universe. Not as far-fetched as you might think, given there's an extra on the Prometheus DVD/Blu-ray that puts Alien and Blade Runner in the same world. Speaking of Prometheus, isn't it amazing what happens when Ridley Scott has a good script? I'm not as down on Prometheus as some, but The Martian is Ridley Scott's best movie in I don't even know how long. Too long.
The Martian is inspiring science-sploitation that moves at a great pace and is just plain fun. My minor gripes are well overshadowed by characters that prove their worth through hard work and their trust in intelligence to persevere in the face of the seemingly impossible. SCIENCE!