Inspiring humanity is not always a goal of science fiction. Science fiction often means whatever we want it to mean. Avengers is science fiction. The Walking Dead is science fiction. Superman is undeniably science fiction as well as a superhero story as well as an immigrant story as well as a host of other things. Science fiction in a traditional sense uses the veneer of technology, alien worlds and adventure through space and time to say something about our own world and humanity. And it’s in that sense that The Martian, both the book and the movie, really shines. It’s pretty to look at, Matt Damon and the rest of the cast give strong performances and Ridley Scott does an excellent job of reminding us all that he is one of the best ever, but as I walked out of the film the thing I felt the most was inspired. If I had seen this when I was younger, dreams of space travel and becoming an astronaut would have filled my head for months afterwards (to be fair, such images filled my head regardless). Now, as an adult, I felt a rush of what humanity can be when we are at out best, when we strive for the greater good.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a member of a NASA mission to Mars aboard the Ares III. When a storm threatens their shelter and escape vehicle back into space. Mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders an evacuation and as they are making their way aboard their ship in the storm Watney gets side swiped by some equipment, is assumed dead and is left behind. Only he is not dead, not dead at all. Once NASA realizes that he is still alive, plans are made, discarded and made again by the likes of NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and others to help him survive until a rescue mission can reach him, which will take years. Watney himself must deal with scarce food, faltering equipment and being the only human being for millions and millions of miles. He does this through the power of science and human ingenuity and a striking good sense of humor and ability to stay on task no matter the challenges he faces.
I read the novel late last year and really enjoyed it and while I was excited for the movie, I was unsure what to expect really. The book relies on log entries and a steady rhythm of Watney solving a problem every few pages to push the narrative forward; he also does a lot of long winded math problems in order to figure out if he has enough supplies to accomplish whatever his current goal is. A movie simply does not have the time to throw as many problems at him as a book does and too much narration can be a real pain to watch on the big screen. But the movie handles that well by selecting the best problems from the book and limiting the log entries that we are forced to watch Damon recite. Watching him problem solve is just as much fun as reading it though, though he does much less explaining than in the book. From building his potato farm with a smelly combination of human feces and native Martian dirt, to his sojourn out to locate the Pathfinder drone so that he can reestablish contact with Earth, it’s a cinematic treat watching an astronaut do what they do best, problem solve. Mark Watney is an inherently charming character, and Matt Damon fills those shoes really well. He holds the film together and while his scenes are not always the most exciting, the humanity and good cheer he gives the character make all the stress and challenges of the rest of the film feel worth it.
The movie expands and does a better job of letting the audience get to know the larger cast and crew that help save Mark than the book does. It’s fun in a West Wing kind of way to watch the NASA leaders argue and figure out different solutions to this completely unexpected problem; when done correctly, watching incredibly smart characters discuss a problem in a productive and informed way is a lot of fun. Jeff Daniels pulls his Newsroom shtick out to great effect as the Director of NASA and the man who must ultimately make all the decisions, including whether or not to even rescue Watney, which is a more interesting problem then you would first think. Of Watney’s fellow astronauts, they all do a great job of capturing the idealism, intelligence and sense brotherhood that must develop on a ship drifting through space. The crew all come off as astronauts should; smart, brave, calm problem solvers who see what needs to be done and go do it. Chastain really looks and sounds the part of a mission commander who has to make some terrible decisions, from leaving someone behind to considering mutiny in order to get her crewman back. Without great acting, a movie like this loses any sense of humanity or soul. It’s easy for people to look past the characters and just take in the spectacle, but without actors anchoring the movie, it falls flat and doesn’t stick with an audience. The movie also gives us a much more satisfying end to the story. The book ends rather abruptly and almost anti-climactic, but the movie pushes past that point and gives us what we want to see, which is Mark returning home and resuming his life.
Speaking of spectacle, the visuals are amazing in this movie. Mars looks like a completely foreign landscape that humans simply are not supposed to live on. It has a strong sense of danger and indifference to the humans who are temporarily calling it home; no matter what Watney or the others do, the landscape remains practically the same. That’s a romantic notion, to be sure, but the moviemakers do a great job of presenting just how different Mars is from Earth. Also of note is the design for the Ares III, as well as all the astronaut equipment. It all looks at once familiar and yet a step apart from current space traveling equipment. I especially like how it’s a rotating ship so that the astronauts get gravity during their travel, which in real life would be a requirement for longer trips like the one needed to Mars.
Science is too often the villain in our movies and fiction. And look, I get it; robots and super weapons are scary. Part of what makes Ultron or the Matrix scary is that we built them, we brought these things into existence. But the reality is that science and those who go about it are far more often making our world better, safer and more awesome then past generations could ever possible imagine. And maybe I’m being a bit too serious about the message of this film, but it’s awesome to have a movie that so wonderfully sings the praises of science, reason and human ingenuity like The Martian does do so well and be so well received.