Led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the Ares 3 space mission has been tasked with collecting soil samples and data on Mars. An unexpected dust storm launches debris at the crew, impaling botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with a rogue satellite and cutting their mission short. Lewis and her crew (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) have no choice but to leave the presumed-dead Watney behind and escape the planet before the storm irreparably damages their spacecraft. Watney awakens the next day, injured but still alive, and treks back to the crew's home base. All contact to NASA has been lost in the storm, and Watney soon realizes that not only is he stuck on the Red Planet with limited supplies and infrastructure, but that it could be years before the next manned mission will arrive to save him.
Watney immediately begins work on developing sustainable sources of water and food, using his remarkable set of scientific and botanical skills to create a functioning greenhouse. He also determines that, in order to be spotted by NASA, he must fix the Rover left behind so that it can travel to the area of the planet that will host the next mission. Meanwhile, on Earth, NASA scientists notice the movement of the Ares vehicles and pods left on the planet, and determine that Watney survived the storm and is modifying the base to provide extended shelter. They make contact with him using a buried signal transponder, and shift the attention of the entire agency toward mounting a rescue mission.
The brain trust at NASA weigh their options for saving Watney, all while considering the potential PR disaster that could come with any decision they make. NASA head Teddy Sanders (a measured Jeff Daniels) clashes with Mission Chief Vincent Kapoor (the always wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor) over possible strategies, as well as whether to inform the remaining Ares 3 crew that Watney is indeed still alive. Kapoor works closely with developers to quickly build a spacecraft filled with life-sustaining supplies, which will keep Watney alive until the Ares 4 mission reaches him in four years' time. Foregoing safety precautions due to time constraints, this unmanned mission to deliver provisions is a disaster, which forces NASA to reach out to the Chinese government for technological help. Eccentric astrophysicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) eventually devises a last-ditch plan for the Ares 3 crew to save Watney by using an orbital slingshot as they approach Earth -- a risk that Sanders is unwilling to take. When secretly informed of the idea via an encrypted e-mail, Lewis and her crew immediately change course to follow Purnell's plan, forcing NASA's hand in aiding this improbable rescue mission.
Staying true to Andy Weir's 2011 novel, director Ridley Scott's surprisingly light flick is a science-heavy study of one man's determination to return home. Watney is far more focused on technical wizardry and cracking wise about his predicament than the existential crisis of being stranded alone on Mars. Even during his video-diary entries, which he knows will likely never be viewed by another human being, he relies on his sense of humor as a defense mechanism to deal with the crushing odds stacked against him. It's a clever way to sidestep the usual characterization you'd expect from a character in this situation, allowing The Martian to opt out of the emotional turbulence of a movie like Cast Away, or even the desperation of Damon's turn in Interstellar.
However, while it might be true to the source material, it also leaves the main character feeling half-realized. Watney has a brief breakdown after a disaster involving his crops and his Rover, but his unflappability and devotion to methodical problem solving keep any negative thoughts safely out of view. Screenwriter Drew Goddard gives the ancillary characters in this story the same treatment; their dogged determination to figure out a plan to save Watney outweighs any individual motives, emotions, or even viewpoints. The Martian isn't particularly concerned with the psychological toll of isolation or guilt, but instead focuses on the triumph of human ingenuity under duress. A balanced account of both the emotional and logistical aspects of the rescue mission would have made this feel like a more complete picture.
Regardless, the movie is a great example of crowd-pleasing cinema. Scott is undeniably a master of spectacle, and as a result, The Martian contains plenty of great popcorn-flick moments. With the help of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Scott even utilizes subtle 3D imagery in order to deepen his already breathtaking environments. At the same time, so much of the film is firmly trained on Damon, and the veteran actor injects his magnetic charm and braininess into the everyman protagonist. Despite a lack of psychological depth, The Martian succeeds as a tribute to humanity's collective resolve, as well as the problem-solving skills of one hell of a botanist.