The Martian (2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott

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A botanist (Matt Damon) finds himself shipwrecked and alone on Mars following an aborted mission and in an effort to survive makes science cool again.  The Martian does for chemistry and ecology what All the President’s Men did for journalism.  These are films about single-minded characters who are good at the thing they do and whose process we can’t help but find ourselves immersed in.

The question here isn’t whether or not Watney survives, though the movie does a good job of ramping up the tension, but how he survives.  From what I understand the science in this movie is pretty realistic, and the story makes an interesting puzzle out of this life or death scenario.

Watney is single-minded because he has to be, but he also has the swagger of an old west cowboy to make it seem as though he simply never had room in his mind for doubt.  He’s a self-deprecating, witty dude who probably needs to be as charismatic as he is here in order to make the movie work.  For just about his entire journey Watney is alone and has no one else for whom Damon can act off of.  To shed some light onto the inner workings of his mind, and to help dramatize an otherwise internal monologue, the story has Watney discuss his journey in short video diaries.  It’s a simple trick which makes him quite likable, partially since he’s addressing us, and helps make clear his process and struggle.

In the end of the movie Watney will explain to a class of students that falling down a hole just creates a series of problems that need to be solved one at a time.  Should you solve enough, you’ll get to live.

Once he is left alone and partially impaled by an antennae on Mars, Watney faces such an uphill, almost abstract journey.  The idea that he could survive this is out of this (or his) world, but the script quickly works to break down the struggle into manageable, individual tasks.

We need to know first what Watney has in his back pocket and second what his first course of action is.  The movie does an impressive job compartmentalizing each challenge and then having fun solving it in a creative manner.

We first establish how long Watney can survive, then what his central need is (food) and how he can go about making his own food, through farming.  This of course means he has to gather fertilizer and create water (using fire).  The nature of his challenge is so unbelievable that the movie must (and does) break it down into just about the smallest components, even down to individual elements (he discusses separating/combining hydrogen and oxygen to create water).

Half of the story, however, takes place back on Earth following a large ensemble cast of characters.  They all chip in to help Watney, once they discover he’s alive, and their arc is one of the more uplifting, optimistic “people” stories in recent memory.  It’s a story of a bunch of people working together and selflessly, combining the efforts of those all over the globe.  Each person does their small part, but together it adds up to a superhuman rescue attempt.

So breaking it down, I suppose the movie makes a superhero out of Watney himself (though he sees himself more as a space pirate) and of the collective efforts of humanity.  In both cases the film makes the idea of a superhero feel more real, achievable through hard work and science.

The Martian is a good blend of drama and comedy, leading to a somewhat infamous inclusion in the “Musical or Comedy” category of the Golden Globes.  It’s definitely not a comedy, but it is nevertheless incredibly funny.  That sense of humor is pretty important to the movie’s success and a good counterbalance to the otherwise unbearably grim fate faced by Mark Watney.

He has to use humor to survive, and though there is an undeniable darkness to his plight (which the movie mostly jumps over as we move quickly through time), there is a charm to a character facing down insurmountable odds and finding it in himself to laugh while he does so.  On one hand it’s the ultimate sign of ego or pride, but the movie takes steps to show how petrified Watney is, particularly during one tense moment in which all that separates him from the Mars atmosphere is tarp and duct tape.

The Martian is an uplifting tale that makes heroes out of all of us and finds a way to laugh in the face of certain death.  It’s a drama about man versus nature, and in its lack of self-seriousness it seems a spiritually-infused take on life as a whole.  Maybe our simple existence is as unlikely as Watney’s on Mars.  It’s not just that he has a lot to overcome but that it’s quite strange and darkly comic that he finds himself on Mars, a planet on which we would seem to have no business being.

Watney’s determination seems to say something about our own determination, something perhaps poignant but more amusing, like humanity as a whole is a series impractical idealism.

Up Next: A Christmas Story (1983), Searching (2018), Green Book (2018)

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