Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Drew Goddard
Starry-eyed rocket science for dummies.
Beyond science-fiction genre exercises, the “serious” space film tends to fall into two subsets.
There are those that use space and its unfathomable pitch-black vastness as the metaphorical battleground for protagonists wrestling with deep-seated trauma or fears, as is the case in High Life, Ad Astra, Interstellar or Gravity, or in Tarkovsky’s originator of the form, Solaris.
Others are stories not so much about what’s out there, but how we get there, and these have become a cinematic go-to for glory-filled tales about mankind’s most daring, swashbuckling displays of ingenuity with our astronauts the embodiment of pioneer daring and scientific excellence.
The Right Stuff stands alone as the prime example, and it’s the same star-spangled planet The Martian wants to land on with its comprehensive detailing of one man’s fate-defying exploits, but also the gargantuan braintrust on earth that makes it all possible.
When a NASA astronaut is left behind on Mars, the entire organisation, its international brethren, and the world as a whole comes together to bring their boy home. The man on the red ground is Matt Damon as space botanist Mark Watney, and orbiting him is a small army of Hollywood A-Listers.
Getting left behind by your colleagues on a planet many, many, miles away from earth’s green grass and everyday comforts is terrifying, but doubt and fear is for lesser men, and so Watney sets about devising a way to stretch his meals and supplement them with Mars-grown potatoes so that he may live long enough for the next ride home. His modest survival project is soon joined by NASA’s own operation to bring him back, and the cast of characters ripple out from here, as experts in every field dazzle in their respective ways to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
What’s keeping this from all turning into a nerd-fest is Matt Damon’s singular ability to both appear capable and in-charge, but also down-to-Mars enough to spell it out in layman’s terms and throw some comedic jabs at it all. I can’t think of an actor better suited to bridge that gap of elite and everyman relatability.
The downside to this is that you have a fair share of dumbed-down exposition sequences that masquerade as Watney’s video logs that make you feel like the dummy in the room who gets taken aside to have it explained to you in bite-sized chunks while you drool into your NASA-bib.
While the premise of The Martian is certainly bleak, it isn’t a film about doubt, but instead about the resolve and heroic problem solving found at the razor’s edge of man’s existence. It’s a starry-eyed portrayal to be sure, but despite it being fiction, it does bring about a sense of wonder and marvel at the real-life exploits of our space programs, however “modest” they might be in comparison to this fictional future where Mars feels a short commute away. However smoothed out The Martian is, it’s a welcome distraction from news about people who argue our world is flat, vaccines are a Bill Gates-led conspiracy theory to turn us all into microchipped slaves, and 5G towers emit corona-virus. Who wouldn’t like a film that exalts us at our brightest and best?
Yes, The Martian is a frictionless success story that has no rough edges, has no antagonists, and there’s some elements that even I, whose scientific peak was to barely pass high school biology, find hard to believe. But action sequences in space are chair-grippingly thrilling, and stories of “one-for-all” collaboration are always moving. That’s a law of nature.
The Martian is popcorn science in shiny packaging, a film about pragmatism in face of the odds instead of self-doubt. A “yes we can”-movie, not a defeatist surrender to fear. Watch it with children, and give them a chance to be inspired by people who use their heads to solve problems, rather than just beat them into submission with their fists.