Movie poster for The Martian from 20th Century Fox
If you’ve read the bestselling SF novel The Martian by Marty Weir, you’ll know it’s not a stretch or an insult to describe it as MacGyver On Mars—the plot depends on stranded astronaut Mark Watney using every piece of available technology, biology, and chemistry in creative ways to help him survive the hostile Martian environment. Weir does it brilliantly, with just enough human touches to keep the reader fully invested in Watney’s survival in spite of numerous technical descriptions that some will find dry. Translating such a science-heavy story into glossy Hollywood entertainment for today’s average moviegoer would seem to be as daunting a challenge as surviving on Mars.
Congratulations to Ridley Scott & Co. for pulling it off with flying colours. I hope Hollywood will take the movie version of The Martian not only as proof that science movies can be successful but as a model for how to do them well.
When a ferocious sandstorm forces a crew of NASA astronauts to cut short their stay on Mars, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is injured and thought to be dead. The crew is forced to leave him behind and return to Earth. The next Mars mission can’t happen for another four years—Watney has enough food and water for a couple of months. His personal survival and any attempt by NASA to rescue him appear to be impossible. Both will require the utmost in human determination and ability to achieve.
In The Martian nearly every character is a scientist—Watney himself is a botanist as well as an astronaut—yet the movie shows that they can be every bit as committed, stubborn, inventive, defiant, funny, sweaty, and courageous as any spy, cop, or soldier. They’re not superhuman, instead they show the best qualities of real human beings and the astonishing things we can achieve. The story isn’t about great feats of daring and stamina (though there’s certainly some of that), but using human ingenuity to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems one step at a time. As the implacable universe throws up each new roadblock, Watney, or the NASA team trying to bring him home, uses brainpower to figure out a way around it.
The scientific explanations are necessarily brief but not absent. When a risky course of action is suggested, the pros and cons are explored honestly. The unpleasant realities of both physics and economics are given fair representation and, true to the book, The Martian escapes being propaganda for the USA by giving an important role to the Chinese space program. I’m deeply impressed by how Ridley Scott has crafted a slick and suspenseful Hollywood offering while keeping it so well balanced. Others have pointed out that it is a rare movie full of optimism. Sure, it has moments of carefully-crafted theatre, but it’s inspirational in a true sense and not just emotionally manipulative.
I can’t talk about a movie like this without mentioning the special effects and they are terrific—eye-popping and authentic (OK, we wouldn’t hear rocket engines in space and the Hermes spacecraft wouldn’t have such big windows, but otherwise…). The Martian vistas are stunning, well worth the extra price of seeing them in 3D. The movie reportedly cost $108 million USD to make and it shows on the screen. Not all of that is Matt Damon’s salary, though he certainly earns his pay by giving Watney just the right amounts of stoicism and nerdiness to grab the audience and hold them—it could so easily have failed in the hands of another actor.
The Martian is a movie without any killing, martial arts, fleets of helicopters, contrived romance, explosions meant to destroy or terrorize, inane humour, super powers or supervillains. So it’s truly a breath of fresh air. I hope box office numbers will show Hollywood that there’s an appetite for this kind of movie and at least one director who knows how to make them.