The film is based upon a novel of the same name by Andy Weir, who is an “amateur” science nerd in addition to being a good writer. Weir created an astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) stranded on Mars after an unexpected storm that blows him away from his team and causes his fellow astronauts to believe he is dead. Consequently, they abort the mission and leave him on the red planet alone. Damon delivers a performance that is creative, spellbinding and humorous in the face of huge challenges. He brings the audience with him all the way.
The cast is diverse, with Director Ridley Scott and screenplay writer Drew Goddard providing subtle confrontations of gender, race and age stereotypes.
Here are some examples:
The commander of the Mars mission, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is well respected by the crew, is competent and strong. No need for a flashy cape. Her “super powers” are ones she has obviously gained through education, perseverance and commitment. She demonstrates care, kindness and great courage through her actions.
An unexpected solution to getting Watney back to earth is proposed by a brilliant young, cool, funky NASA scientist Rich Purnell ((Donald Glover aka rapper Childish Gambino).
Star scientists and astronauts are not all middle-aged white guys and the ones who are in this film listen new ideas.
Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) is a NASA satellite planner in Mission Control, who wields her significant knowledge with humility and grace.
Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetwl Ejiofor), a British actor who was nominated for an Academy Award in “12 Years a Slave”, plays a high level NASA scientist and offers a superb performance with a well-tempered and dedicated tone.
Jeff Daniels plays the NASA administrator. His laconic yet tough style lends itself to the kinds of decisions one might expect his character would face in these circumstances.
The performances by all these actors and others in the film are superb.
The 3D technology is incorporated into the film in ways so unobtrusive that viewers are invited into the visual depth of the film without worrying that something is going to jut out of the screen and hit them in the face.
In the genre of today’s films this one is refreshing. Nobody is trying to kill anyone else. In fact, the film is a testimony to collaboration and cooperation. China and the U.S. help each other, the team of astronauts like each other and can kid with each other in authentic ways, the space station, scientists and scenes of people in NY and London, show crowds pulling for the astronauts and waiting to see if the rescue mission is successful.
Looking at this film through the lens of faith we see nods to prayer on both planets. On Mars, Damon uses pieces of a wooden crucifix to start a fire. Holding it, he asks for help to survive until he’s rescued. On earth, a couple NASA scientists discuss their religious history and, even though their religious preferences are very different, they acknowledge they’re going to need help wherever they can get it.
Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and the will of the spirit are the underlying themes of this film. But the real heartbeat of this film is the value that is placed on the life of the individual. Throughout this film “Love your neighbor as yourself” is evident in a still small voice and nuanced over and over again.