If you've seen any promotional material for The Martian other than the trailer, you probably assumed that it's a dramatic and serious affair. Most of the popular stills from the movie involve a lonely Matt Damon staring out at the desolate landscapes of Mars (sorry). If this deterred you from seeing The Martian at all, rethink that decision right away or you'll miss out on one of the best movies of the year.
Drew Goddard and Ridley Scott imbue the film's humorous writing, fleshed out characters, and captivating story with a levity that makes excellent The Martian feel grounded. Goddard has always been a skilled screenwriter- he wrote some of the best episodes of the legendary Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where he picked up a touch of Joss Whedon's comedic styling) and the brilliant The Cabin in the Woods (where he learned even more from Whedon)- so it's no surprise that The Martian's dialogue is top-notch.
Ridley Scott's context is quite different: his last five films have been mediocre at best; it has seemed like the director's once stellar career was facing a steady decline. How could the man behind classics like Alien and Gladiator give us complete duds like The Counselor and Exodus: Gods and Kings? Well, now he's directed The Martian, and Scott's bad spell is broken.
The movie is based on Andy Weir's book of the same name, and its premise is simple but rife with possibility: a manned mission to Mars must evacuate the planet early due to an intense storm, but Mark Watney (Damon) is presumed dead due to an equipment accident and left behind. While Melissa (Jessica Chastain) and her team are already flying through space back to Earth, Mark wakes up alone on Mars and decides that he will try to survive there for three years so he can return with the next mission. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA and America discover Mark is alive and collectively do a lot of crazy things to BRING. HIM. HOME.
And man, does everybody have a sense of humor about the whole deal. Especially the guy stranded by himself on Mars.
The Martian's subject matter could make for a smoldering drama, but that would be betraying the spirit of Weir's original book. The movie's source material is decidedly focused on squeezing as much education and entertainment out of the story as possible, and Goddard does a terrific job maintaining that throughout the adapted screenplay.
Concerning education: The Martian sets out to demonstrate the power of science and the power of humanity in equal measure. The movie relays its scientific methods interestingly and accurately. By framing them in an exciting story, every scientific achievement becomes a rousing narrative landmark, and the audience can't help but wait with bated breath for the next advancement in survival. By giving every character attentive development, the movie wholly earns its attempt to be a powerful depiction of the remarkable human spirit. Occasionally, this celebration dips into cheesy feel-good territory, but it's so rewarding that it's not entirely unwelcome. You'll want to cheer, and often.
Concerning entertainment: you'll laugh often too. Scott works hard to permeate the film's tone with lightheartedness: brightly colored environments (even on Mars) and brisk, fun pacing abound. Goddard's writing matches this levity with consistently hilarious dialogue- a wonderful mix of Weir's dry sarcasm from the book and a noticeably Whedonesque wit. Every member of the cast is fantastic in their dedication to the film's humanist and cheerful tone, but rightfully Damon is the most so. The most quotable lines stem from Watney conquering Martian loneliness with jokes and tangible personality.
This does cause an adverse effect of lightheartedness removing a sense of danger: even when things go terribly wrong on Mars, we're not worried. The movie's breezy mood trains us to think things will work out because they always do, and quickly. You won't be on the edge of your seat wondering what could possibly happen next.
This is completely forgivable though- that's not what The Martian is trying to realize. What it does try to realize is an irresistibly enjoyable look at the capacity of science and humanity to accomplish something amazing. The Martian does so with space-flying colors, and it's fully deserving of being the first sci-fi film to win Best Picture.