I’m not sure if it’s true, but the moral imparted at the end of The Martian is certainly useful: When in trouble, set to work. “You solve one problem,” Matt Damon explains to a classroom of NASA cadets (and by extension, the audience), “and then”—despite the demonstrated likelihood of calamity—“you solve the next.”
He ought to know. Damon has spent a lot of time recently fighting for his life far from Earth, sometimes disgracefully (in Interstellar) and sometimes with a newfound revolutionary fervor (in Elysium), but never with such inventiveness and droll good cheer as in The Martian. His character, an astronaut named Watney, might be intended as a slightly futuristic Robinson Crusoe, marooned on the red planet with no resources other than a well-stocked operating base, a scientific education, and the support of Mission Control in Houston; but considering the man’s pluckiness, and the movie’s amusement in seeing him patch things together, the better comparison might be with Buster Keaton, when he was lost at sea in The Navigator.
You may recognize this high-slapstick tradition in the knowing deadpan that Damon expertly maintains, the occasional pratfall that drops a cast member out of the frame, the persistent sense of play (which turns the climax into a game of crack-the-whip high above Mars), and even the film’s old-fashioned attitude toward its lead actress. Given little to do in her role as a NASA mission commander, no scripted quirks other than a taste for disco music, and an apparent reluctance to make up anything on her own, Jessica Chastain might just as well have been credited as “The Girl.” For this reason, among others, I can’t say The Martian improves on Keaton, or even contributes much to his heritage beyond spiffier visual effects (which I’ll get to in a moment), but it does belong to an honorable lineage. Nature may erupt with terrifying force (as when a sandstorm on Mars sets off all of Damon’s problems), and authority figures labor to seem tough (witness Jeff Daniels, looming in close-up as the sternly befuddled head of NASA), but American pragmatism reliably triumphs, winning out over entropy and seriousness alike.
It’s puzzling, though, to see this cinematic vein being mined by Ridley Scott, a filmmaker who tends toward fatalism, cynicism, and a belief that dumb luck is all that saves us from the fangs of a reptilian universe. I wonder what moral could have been taught at the end of his 2013 film, The Counselor—all people are utterly depraved, except for Cameron Diaz, who isn’t human? Or his 2014 epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings—don’t believe the Bible? I much prefer the jovial, can-do spirit of The Martian to the implicit worldview of Alien, Blade Runner, or American Gangster, but I imagine it comes primarily from the source novel by Andy Weir and the jovial screenplay by Drew Goddard, which Scott, as an old pro, has realized with more craftsmanship than conviction.