Mars has long been the muse to writers, scientists and moviemakers. A wikipedia search for “films about Mars” will yield a page that lists 66 titles although many of them were television shows. The most common plot line that emerges when Mars and Earth are in the same script turns out to be mostly bad for Earthlings. We often survive in the end, but, on my, the destruction.
Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the novel by Andrew Weir with screenplay credit going to Drew Goddard, is all Hollywood. It’s playful and goes out of it’s way to be entertaining. But it should get noticed for something rare. A movie largely about Mars, science and NASA, completely devoid of little green Martians. Thank you Mr. Weir.
The film opens with a group of astronauts already on Mars to continue studies, presumably preparing for colonization. Suddenly a raging storm rolls in and the team must make an emergency launch to avoid their vehicle from tipping over. In their rush, Mark Watney, played with delightful snark by Matt Damon, is left for dead after a horrible accident prior to boarding.
The Captain, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is riddled with guilt at having left behind a crew member who was in her charge. Ms. Chastain has become one of my favorite actors to watch. Her ability to shape her characters with genuineness, display smartness, not smart-assness, and be an irresistible woman is a winning combination. Mr. Scott is keen on strong women roles and this tradition continues.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is left to tell the world that Astronaut Watney will not be making the return trip with the rest of the crew. He lies in state on the surface of the Red Planet. Mr. Daniels is as reliable as ever, sporting his wide vocabulary and the doing math in his head.
Mr. Weir has given us a futuristic shipwreck story. It’s a classic theme. A solitary survival tale of man vs. his environment against seemingly unsurmountable odds. But Mr. Weir has a major advantage; technology. In this new age much more is possible. Innovation and disruption for once provides hope of survival and not just monetary wealth.
When Wantey regains consciousness he takes us through a series of amazing feats of survival, physical exertion and some kick butt farming. He overcomes one obstacle after another, fulfilling his determination to survive until a rescue mission arrives. Through good old fashioned NASA trained ingenuity, Watney reanimates the Pathfinder hardware from a decades ago mission and uses it to communicate with NASA. The news that Watney is alive causes even more problems for Sanders, who eventually organizes a rescue mission.
The film frequently shows us Watney through the voyeuristic lens of a Go Pro camera, but with his full permission. It’s a video instagram stream that is expanded to include the left behind artifacts of his crew. The most prominent of which is Commander Lewis’ obsession with music from the 1970’s and ’80’s. The lowest rung on the music one hit wonder ladder. Mr. Scott uses those tunes to great effect, but my ears! He did redeem himself when David Bowie’s Starman came across the speakers while Watney gathered his things for another expedition away from home base.
Eventually Sanders has to tell the crew that Watney is still alive, which brings into focus the other major theme of the story, being part of a team. A mission to Mars means you are going to adopt a new family while leaving your existing one behind. It’s a serious commitment. Nothing else matters but your knowledge, your team’s knowledge — carefully designed to fill in the gaps—and the Earthlings at the Johnson Space Center. Space travel is new territory and despite the fact we have been studying it since Galileo, it stands to reason that we are not close to being prepared for what it can bring.
The world is enthralled with Watney’s plight, including the Chinese who offer to help. Soon the United Sates and China are collaborating to bring him home. Eventually, Watney’s crew mates are offered a choice. Come home, or return their ship, the Hermes (The God who protects travelers) around and endure hundreds more days in space. Spoiler alert, yes they decide to rescue Watney.
The final reels of the film are filled with frantic action to capture a now floating Watney, who has launched himself into space with a vehicle placed on Mars in preparation of another mission. It’s all very unrealistic but so enjoyable to watch.
Top notch technical work all around matches the acting performances, all stewarded along by veteran Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. Many will remember the interspersed pop songs that help us laugh during the long, lonely moments. But it’s the deeply intellectual, sonic snippets by Mr. Greyson-Williams that reminds us of the seriousness of each day, while binding together the collective progress of both Watney and the Earthlings.
This is the third year in a row Hollywood has produced a high quality film set in space. Gravity in 2013, Interstellar in 2014 and now The Martian. I hope this trend continues.