Ever since 1977, when a little movie called Star Wars caught the public’s attention, the space opera has been the go-to subgenre for mainstream movie sci-fi. There’s room for other takes, like Duncan Jones’ 2009 cult hit Moon or this year’s excellent Ex Machina, but those are usually tiny films that play at the edges. When it comes to big studios and big budgets, it’s all about action and sweeping melodrama (with a little futuristic dystopia thrown in from time to time) — with little to no time for philosophical ponderings or scientific details.
Now here we are, 38 years later, with a new Star Wars on the way, and it looks like that wheel is going to just keep on turning. But sneaking in right before that cultural explosion is another type of science fiction film, one that’s been slowly building its own unique brand of hype: Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Based on the best-selling book by Andy Weir, it’s a mainstream attempt to go in the exact opposite direction and tell a story about the power of science and technological ingenuity. One that tries to glamorize the creative thinking and determination of astronauts, astrophysicists, and the mad geniuses at NASA and JPL.
We’re talking about a $108 million dollar movie where Matt Damon says the only way he’ll be able to avoid dying alone on Mars is to “science the shit out of this.” Hallelujah.
It’s roughly 15 years into the future, and Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist and astronaut who’s part of Ares 3, the third crewed mission to Mars. While out collecting samples from the Martian surface, a sudden storm overtakes the crew, and with Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) convinced that Watney’s been killed by falling debris, the crew leaves the planet and begins the journey back to Earth. Only it turns out that Watney is still alive, stranded alone on the surface of the Red Planet, and with a limited number of rations and years to go before Ares 4 returns to Mars, he’s got to figure out how to survive and get in touch with the folks back home.
It’s like Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and in many ways The Martian plays like two entirely different movies. One follows NASA’s director of Mars missions, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), as he learns that Watney is alive, and then wrangles support from the agency’s director (Jeff Daniels — that Will McAvoy Newsroom smugness lives!) and head of media relations (an understated Kristen Wiig). The other is a one-man show with Damon as he tries to grow food, make water, and knock down the complications that inevitably arise. It’s carried in large part by the video diaries Watney makes with the GoPro cameras hanging around the Mars habitat, and while it’s a device that could quickly grow stale, it’s a testament to both the actor’s watchability and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s adaptation that the sequences are not only interesting, but compelling.
Andy Weir’s original book The Martian was a DIY internet success, with the author — a software engineer at Palm at the time — self-publishing it on the Kindle and rocketing up Amazon’s sales charts before mainstream publishers (and Hollywood) came calling. His book was an exercise in authenticity, with stretches discussing the calculations Watney would use to figure out how to make water, or map out how long it will take to trek across the Martian surface. It’s the kind of thing that almost never works in movies, but Goddard cloaks the technical beats in character moments, using them to highlight Watney’s sarcastic sense of humor. It emotionalizes the science, while the NASA storyline serves as a more traditional ticking clock suspense mechanism, as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, then the country, and then the entire world do everything they can to save Watney. It gives the movie a sense of giant stakes and urgency, even while a bulk of it is simply one dude walking around in a space suit.
Scott evokes a heartbreaking sense of isolationAs a director, Ridley Scott sets up some amazing landscapes and then largely gets out of the way. That’s not to say the movie isn’t meticulous and beautiful — it is, and some of the images of Watney alone against the vast Martian landscape evoke a heartbreaking sense of isolation. But there’s very little in terms of stylistic flourishes or flash; this is Ridley Scott dialed back, and after the excesses of Prometheus and Exodus: Of Gods and Kings, it’s wonderful to see the filmmaker show off some different, muted colors.
The Martian ultimately falls short of true greatness (or of becoming the next Gravity), succumbing to an ending that feels a little too rock ‘em sock ‘em for the rest of the film, without providing any kind of resonant bookend. It’s not that the film doesn’t try on the latter front — there’s an awkward attempt at pulling all the threads together for a bit of You’ve Got To Just Keep On Trying! kumbaya — but it feels tacked on. It’s a problem that affected the book, too; after a certain point it’s pretty obvious that only a sociopath would craft a tale like The Martian and leave out the happy ending, and there’s only so many places the movie can go once Watney’s story is resolved.
A celebration of math, science, and sheer human willBut The Martian doesn’t need to be the greatest movie of all time to make a difference or inspire. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has often (correctly) pointed out that space exploration has lost its aspirational cultural edge in the last few decades; due to budget cuts and setbacks “we’ve stopped dreaming.” And while private companies like SpaceX, NASA’s Curiosity rover, and other recent discoveries generate sparks of public interest, we’re a long way from the global fascination space once inspired. That’s only going to change if we push forward, and encourage entirely new generations to excel in math, education, and the related fields that make space travel possible.
Dr. Tyson has already weighed in on his favorite line from the trailers, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise. It all comes down to science, and our ability to put a relatable, human face on it. Despite the periodic leaps of logic — we are talking about a movie, after all — The Martian’s biggest accomplishment may be that it takes near-future space exploration, and makes it look achievable with the right amount of work and creative thinking. If Mark Watney can escape the planet, then surely a new generation can find a way to get people there — and that’s a sentiment we could use a lot more of.