A fierce storm forces an emergency evacuation and cuts short the first manned mission to Mars. In the chaos, the crew abandons biologist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) believing he died. Watney survived though and immediately begins working to reestablish communications with NASA and to survive with limited resources in the harsh Martian climate.
The Martian follows Gravity: hard sci-fi survival stories built around NASA and fronted by A-List actors. Coupled with smaller but still interesting pictures like Duncan Jones’s Moon and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, there appears to be a bit of a renaissance for space exploration pictures, one not seen since the decade up to the first lunar landing. The popularity of these pictures comes at a precarious time for NASA itself. It’s funding perpetually slashed (for some reason Americans seem to think its a significant portion of government spending), and shuttle operations rely on the Russians and the promise of private companies like Space-X. The public response to the Martian like Gravity before it suggests perhaps the American public still holds a soft spot for space exploration, and maybe a renaissance is possible in the future.
Certainly Gravity’s success eased The Martian’s run to production. Director Ridley Scott though makes no attempts to assert his visual mastery over Cuaron. This is the most subdued of Scott’s sci-fi/fantasy oeuvre. The emphasis is on believability. The landscapes, the weather, all veer toward “plausible” over stylized.
If The Martian is a response to any other film it would have to be Ridley Scott’s previous picture, Prometheus. That had all the beauty of a marble Greek statue but about the same IQ. The Martian comes with reams of notes. The bulk of the exposition is devoted to explaining the physics behind each move. Mark Watney uses his video diaries not to reflect on life or leave messages to his family and friends back on earth, but instead to carefully explain his survival plans in detail.
Most of the human conflict in the story revolves around practicality and the laws of diminished returns. Whether one life is worth four, whether corners can be cut in the the face of immediate need. No one here is truly bad, but when officers step out of line they are held accountable.
Given the lack of dramatic conflict and character depth all emphasis is put on the delivery. Though the story spans months of real time, the US base of operations runs at a constant fever pitch. Scott relies on comedic actors to add variety. In a world populated entirely by rocket scientists, astrophysicists, and biologists, Kristen Wiig gets the thankless task of acting as the closest thing to a layman, asking all those dumb questions for the benefit of the audience. Similarly Donald Glover turns in a caffeinated performance as the physicist with the bold plan to rescue the abandoned astronaut. Among the traditional actors, Jeff Daniels reigns as the voice of cold reason with Sean Bean as the soft spoken foil advocating for humanity.
If all this makes The Martian sound dull or uninteresting, it shouldn’t. It’s remarkable how much drama can be wrung from applying knowledge to combat perilous situations. The math adds up. There’s a reason why MacGuyver lives on as verb twenty years after the television show ended. When people make Walter White out to be a folk hero, it’s as much for being able to recharge a car battery from pocket change than building a meth empire. The science on display in The Martian expands the sense of the possible in the viewers. We are invited to break out our lab kits at home and experiment for ourselves.
One curious piece here is the exclusion of Russians, the country whose space program has been a point of pride since the fifties, for the Chinese, whose space program has yet to bear fruit. This feels wrong in a number of ways. Since the end of the cold war, the space program has been the one area where the US and Russia could cooperate free of the political climate. It’s somewhat strange to believe that a mission to Mars could get accomplished without great cooperation between the Russians and the US. Given the dire straights of the relationship at present, I can see why the Russians would be omitted. But the truth of the matter is that Russia isn’t nearly as big of a film market as China. It seems like every big budget picture needs to make play to the Chinese market in some form, usually by casting their government as noble civic servants especially when compared to their messy counterparts in the West.