Mars has loomed large in human storytelling for thousands of years. As with any popular setting, Mars has inspired tales of wildly varying quality, particularly when it comes to film. Mars Needs Women, The Angry Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Mars Attacks!, Total Recall - all entertaining films, but flawed to varying degrees. Ridley Scott's The Martian is just as (or more) entertaining as all of those movies, but without the flaws. It arguably stands as the best of the Mars movies to date.
Thanks to the film's clever in-universe viral marketing, most moviegoers knew the Martian's story before they ever stepped into theatres: astronaut/botanist Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars and forced to rely on his own wits for the months and years before a rescue can be mounted.
It's a simple story, but told with wit, tension and real human drama. There are no villains in this film, not even Mars itself; there is only a set of unfortunate circumstances, bad luck, and the immutable laws of physics. Set against that is Mark Watney's education, experience, intelligence and determination. It's a film where brains are more important than brawn, a celebration of science.
It's also a great testament to the importance of working together, from small teams to entire nations. I choked up a little at certain points in the film, particularly the points when good-hearted people on two continents work themselves to exhaustion for the sake of helping a person in need.
Aside from its merits of storytelling, direction, special effects and acting, The Martian offers something that many films fail to deliver: hope. For The Martian posits a world in which we once again boldly strike out for the stars, and do so in the spirit of international collaboration. I reiterate: there are no villains in this story, no shoehorned narrative of good versus evil. It's just a story of courage, smarts and the human need to explore new frontiers and do the right thing for our fellow people. Three and a half Burroughs out of four.