What he is is the one left behind when a monstrous Martian windstorm threatens to topple a NASA expedition’s ride back to their orbiting base, and Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) aborts it. Feisty Mark Watney (Damon) disagrees with the decision, dawdles while getting back to the escape rocket (called a MAV), and gets knocked out when a communications dish gets blown away and clonks him on the head. Try as they might, Lewis and her crew, including Beth (Kate Mara) and Rick (Michael Pena), can’t find Watney in the blinding sand. Lewis reluctantly calls everyone back in, and they ditch the base, dock with their orbiting mother ship, and head out on their 4-month journey back to Earth.
Like Robinson Crusoe, Watney wakes up later to find himself alone and abandoned. He staggers back into the base compound, and, after handling the immediate problem of the metal rod stuck in his gut, sits down to contemplate his situation, recording everything on what we would probably call his personal video blog. What follows is an account of Watney’s genius and resourcefulness as he finds ways to manufacture oxygen, grow his own food, rig the base’s battery-powered vehicle with solar panels to give it unlimited range, and even dig up the old NASA unmanned probe Pathfinder to rig up a way to potentially communicate with Mission Control back on Earth.
Meanwhile, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (a deadpan Jeff Daniels) has long since declared Watney dead and Lewis and her crew are over halfway home. So it’s quite a shock when they hear transmissions coming from the long-defunct probe announcing that Watney is indeed not only alive, but also has made provision to survive all the way until the next NASA manned mission arrives three and a half years later at a site some 2000 miles from Watney’s base.
Things become more urgent, though, when Watney returns to his base, an airlock explosion nearly kills him, and destroys his food-growing system. Now with only enough food to last roughly another year, Watney abandons his fractured base with what food and supplies he can hook up to his vehicle, and heads out in a doomed effort to make it to the site of NASA’S next landing, where another MAV stands, though there will be no mother ship out in orbit for it to dock with.
Back on Earth, Sanders nixes any attempt to mount a special rescue mission, but more humane (and ingenious) friends, both on the ground, in Watney’s crew, and even in China conspire behind Sander’s back to make such a mission happen, at their own peril.
As wonderfully cast, directed, and shot that this film is, there’s something a bit off about it for me, and I think it’s in the writing. It’s a tough enough challenge to make a story which basically comes down to being Castaway in space (the Robert Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks) seem interesting despite things like the long passages of time involved and the fact that the main character is essentially able to talk only to himself. But when you’re asked to make all this, plus everything else that happens in the film, look, feel, and sound like a real NASA mission, complete with its intentionally emotionless dialogue, much of what feeling that might be expressed between the characters is pretty much sucked out of the story. And ironically, despite his impossible situation, things always seem to work out pretty much according to plan for Watney, and even his crew, and the folks on the ground. Unlike another similar movie, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, where every trial seems fraught with error, here, aside from a couple of notable glitches, things just kind of hum along for our heroes. Only at one point after the initial tragedy did I ever feel like anyone was in any real, mortal danger.
So, while there’s a lot to like in this film and a lot done well by Director Ridley Scott and crew, in the end, the result is a film that perhaps should be a bit more riveting than it actually is, at least for me.