Regardless of genre, this is one of the finest films of recent years. It’s certainly among the most mature SF pieces of the decade, wonderfully detailed and realistic, with masterful direction by Ridley Scott and with maybe Matt Damon’s best acting work ever.
Based on Andy Weir’s debut novel, the film centers on Mark Watney (Damon), the botanist on the Ares III mission to Mars. He and his crewmates are suddenly faced with one of the Red Planet’s massive sandstorms–one so powerful, it threatens to topple their lander on its side. So they rush to prepare for an emergency departure. The breaks off a piece of an antenna that punctures Watney’s spacesuit and inflicts a nasty chest wound on him. He’s blasted out of sight of the rest of the crew in the blinding storm. Worse, the impact destroyed his suit’s transmitter that relayed his life signs.
With no telemetry from his suit, the reasonable assumption is that he’s dead. The mission commander, played ably by Jessica Chastain, wants to recover the body. But if their only means of escape is wrecked by the super-storm they’ll all die. So she reluctantly joins her remaining colleagues for an emergency blastoff. They safely reach the orbiting mothership and, with no other option, report the tragic loss and begin the months-long voyage back to Earth.
Only Watney isn’t dead–at least not yet.
He regains consciousness and finds the storm has passed. He’s seriously injured, but the antenna that impaled him and the blood that seeped out around it, instantly flash-freezing to seal the damaged suit, kept him from losing all his air. Even so, time has passed and his supply oxygen is critically low.
He stumbles back to the temporary habitat the crew had established on the Martian surface. There’s damage to be repaired, but at least it’s still air-tight. Watney has to perform crude emergency first aid on himself, complete with stapling his wound shut after removing his suit and the piece of antenna that nearly killed him.
This is just the first of many harrowing challenges he must face absolutely alone. It will take years for another Mars expedition to come looking for him–if they’ll even bother. And while he could live fairly long on existing supplies, since they’re only one mouth to feed (and have water, and breathe the stored oxygen) it won’t last long enough. He doesn’t even have means to communicate with Earth and tell then he’s alive.
But while fully and believably human, he is a trained astronaut and not one to give in to despair. Sure, he’s scared. And yes, he breaks down a couple times as he suffers periodic and potentially deadly setbacks. But Watney recovers and keeps working, keeps using his brain to figure ways of solving problem after problem.
He makes what repairs he can. His knowledge as a botanist is a major plus as he establishes an indoor garden to increase his food supply. And necessary outdoor activities like brushing sand off solar panels (to ensure electric power) and moving things from place to place in the still-function Mars-buggy have the unexpected effect of telling NASA that he’s still–improbably but definitely STILL ALIVE.
An orbiting satellite passes over the base-camp regularly and automatically transmits pictures back to Earth. The unmistakable changes get NASA head Jeff Daniels and the many fine actors working under him thinking up every possible means of helping their stranded astronaut survive and rescuing him.
The many adventures Watney faces over the next couple years are extraordinary. Meanwhile, Chastain and the others aboard the returning ship struggle with guilt when they finally learn the truth–despite the fact they had no choice under the circumstances.
Eventually communication is restored for all concerned and more brainstorming of solutions occurs. There are, as one expects, setbacks–including a disastrous blowout that ruins Watney supplemental food supply.
There’s also a few bits of welcome humor. It seems in the hasty retreat from Mars that only one set of music recordings were left behind. It seems the Mission Commander had a weakness for the ‘classic’ disco sounds of her childhood. To Watney’s amused disgust, there’s nothing else to kill time with. And so the film ends up with some very unexpected musical accompaniments.
Of course everyone else in the film is determined to help. This includes members of the Chinese space agency, who have a top-secret new rocket that’s faster than anything so far. But they can’t politically reveal this technical leap forward to save a competitor country’s astronaut. The movie’s commitment to realism here, as elsewhere, is worthy of much praise.
Fortunately, a young NASA astrophysicist comes up with a risky plan involving a gravity assisted slingshot to send the returning mothership around Earth and back to Mars way sooner than otherwise possible. They need resupplied for the return voyage and here the Chinese can (and will) lend a hand. But it’s so risky (all six astronauts could be killed) that NASA is reluctant. Chastain and company force their hand, however.
Watney has one last wild adventure on the surface, reaching supplies pre-positioned for the planned Ares IV mission. Then he must get into orbit and manage a death-defying, high speed rendezvous with his crewmates.
But does it all work out? Hey, this heroic but human bunch (headed by Damon in a sterling performance) just cannot be allowed to fail. If that amounts to a spoiler–too bad.
Very highly recommended!