The Martian: Sciencing the Movies

Though maybe not with a lump of plutonium as a space heater...
Honestly, the idea of exploring Mars in this is as appealing as anything in the film. (from

The Martian has been out for a week, and it looks like it’s not just a box office success but a big one. It’s just what’s deserved for a film that marries Ridley Scott’s visual genius to a clever and intelligent (not the same thing) script, delivered via Matt Damon’s leading-man charisma and a stellar supporting cast. As popcorn entertainment, it’s the best thing since Mad Max: Fury Road (which, okay, wasn’t that long ago, but that will become an actual classic).

(Some, but not too many, spoilers below.)

Go a little further back, and it’s clear that The Martian is the latest example of a welcome trend: big-budget movies extolling science, and specifically space travel, as aspirational. Interstellar last year and Gravity the year before don’t quite make for a clear trilogy, given Interstellar’s mystical elements, but there’s a clear connection with Gravity, where an astronaut is again forced to extreme measures to survive a hostile environment due to an unforeseen disaster. (The first part of this trilogy is clearly Apollo 13, of course.)

The focus on science is a welcome one, if a little hyped up by Damon’s “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this” line in the trailers. The film itself blends the science into the drama and humour, which is just as well given that scientific accuracy is only as present as Hollywood lets it be. For all that, it’s still great to see a science fiction movie where the struggle is between human beings and an awe-inspiring but uncaring universe, with the only weapon the former possesses being science. There are no villains here, only the urgency imparted by sands trickling through the hourglass.

The protagonists are divided into three groups—Damon’s isolated astronaut on Mars, the team that unwittingly abandoned him, and the Earthbound NASA team and their allies. All three get their moment in the sun. Damon’s sardonic humour as he struggles to survive near certain death on a hostile planet carries a good half of the film, but there are excellent players in smaller parts, notably Jessica Chastain as the capable commander of the Mars Mission, Jeff Daniels as the beleaguered head of NASA, and Sean Bean as the devoted ground-based head of the Mars Mission.

Keeping these strands balanced is Drew Goddard’s excellent script. I’ve read no more than the first few chapters of Andy Weir’s original novel, but the consensus among those who have seems to be that the film at least matches it. Goddard juggles a host of characters and dramatic situations, allowing Damon to remain human rather than turn into a heroic stereotype while giving even minor characters moments to display their humanity and their talents. The final act might bow a little too much to Hollywood spectacle, but the film has built up so much goodwill at that point that it’s easy to coast over any reservations about plausibility.

Even more so than the film, the biggest beneficiary of Goddard’s script is director Ridley Scott. After a series of films that have been uneven at best (I liked Kingdom of Heaven, especially the extended edition, but Prometheus, Exodus and Robin Hood were all remarkably silly), The Martian marks a return to form. It may not be his most beautiful film, given that Mars’s landscape is more monotonous than Earth’s, but as a master of visual representation he’s on form here, moving easily from Earth- and Mars-bound shots to representations of the interior and exterior of the Hermes spacecraft that are reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This review might seem like it’s referencing a lot of other films, and I haven’t even mentioned Tom Hanks’ Castaway, which also featured a lone survivor trying to maintain his sanity, but the point is that The Martian is not an outlier in Hollywood terms. It’s a classic adventure tale, of human courage and ingenuity, and audiences are likely to reward it as such. The fact that CGI spectacle is used in service of the film rather than in an effort to sell it as spectacle, hopefully shows that the blockbuster market is regaining some sanity.

To return to Apollo 13, the clearest predecessor to The Martian, whereas that was based on history, The Martian is based on a self-published novel. Nonetheless, the same admiration of problem-solvers and engineers shines through. This is a fine way to make viewers fall in love with space again—by showing just how hard it will be to go there, to live there, and to achieve great deeds there, it extols the virtues of those who will have to do that one day. I’m don’t quite agree with one writer, though, who described the film as the most Randian major film in years.

The Martian hasn’t quite usurped two smaller films, Moon and Ex Machina, in my affections as far as smart science fiction goes. But I enjoyed it a lot more than I did either Gravity or Interstellar. It manages to be both more rational and more human, something that Goddard and Damon share most of the credit for. I’m very glad to see Scott back on form too, and I only hope he takes the hint and works with Goddard (or Alex Garland) again soon—though with sequels to Prometheus and Blade Runner on his horizon, I fear that might not be the case.

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