[In space, no one can hear these spoilers. You might read them though.]
You are the only person on the planet. The closest human soul is hundreds of millions of miles away and hurtling further every second. Anyone who might be able to help thinks you are dead, and it would take years for them to enact a rescue plan, regardless. This planet is inhospitable; there is no life, what little atmosphere remains would kill you in seconds, and temperatures plummet below -100 degrees at night. You have no way to communicate, and obviously, no way to leave.
Also – here’s the kicker – you have enough food to last about a month.
At this point, I kill myself, don’t know about you. Then again, I am not Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire with a self-belief to rival Usain Bolt in an egg-and-spoon race. He is the star of The Martian, a man left for dead on Mars after a scientific research mission turns sour. His fellow astronauts aboard their ship, the Hermes, are not told until much later that he is alive, and thus Watney is forced to put his intellect to the test, or face certain death.
The movie, just like the book (which I legitimately could not put down), presents a series of problems that have to be solved. How do I grow food in soil unfit for crops [finds answer]; how do I make water from rocket fuel and air [finds answer]; most importantly, how do I survive only being able to listen to disco for two years? The answers to these questions are grounded in real science, at it is the sense of discovery in every moment that gives the film its spark. Eventually Watney finds a way to communicate with NASA, and then The Martian becomes about a lot of smart people doing their jobs. It is enthralling.
It’s so good to see a big budget movie about nice people, as well as smart ones. This isn’t an action adventure flick, this is Robinson Crusoe on Mars; Castaway, substituting the volleyball for billions of dollars’ worth of advanced spacefaring technology. In fact, this might be the first action sci-fi film where no one dies. Not even Sean Bean, AND HE DIES IN EVERY MOVIE.
Watney, played by Maaaatt Damon, is infinitely likeable without overstaying his welcome. He’s charismatic and fiercely strong in will, coupled with a physical gravitas all brought out by a supreme performance of lone acting. And he is not the only affable one; back on Earth, when an insignificant Mars satellite operator spots evidence of movement around what was Ares III’s base camp, all of NASA and the rest of wider society absorb themselves in the effort to get Watney home. Money is no object. Though when Jeff Daniels’ NASA Chief has a momentary crisis of faith and is unwilling to risk the resources – human and financial – for the slim chance of saving Watney, lamenting that “this is bigger than one man,” Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson – Hermes Flight Co-ordinator – sets him straight. “No. It’s not.”
The stakes are immeasurably high. On Mars, Watney could literally die at any second if the Hab pressure gives out (as it inevitably does), and he begins to show signs of the heavy toll taken in his bid for survival. However, it is the weight of the earthbound effort – and insistence – to dedicate untold fortunes in order to save one man that is made all the more powerful by the fact that such an undertaking would happen in reality. Instances of global sacrifice towards a single cause are littered throughout history; look at how the world responded to the earthquake that devastated Haiti. Humanity has a combined strength more devastating than any force of nature, it’s just a shame that we are unable to rally it more often. Mark Watney is saved in a triumph of human guile and ingenuity, exemplified by one man in the most hostile situation imaginable, and in the thousands of minds back on Earth sacrificing months of their lives to ensure his struggle is not in vain. When Mark finally manages to board the Hermes, roughly 600 days after being left behind, he becomes living proof of what we are capable of. That, is The Martian’s greatest achievement.
If there’s one solid assumption I can make about the vast majority of the general public, it is that science is something to be feared and not revered. A US Presidential candidate – campaigning to become leader of the most powerful nation on the planet – simply has to avoid stating a belief in something like the theory of evolution to even have a chance at victory. I’m ecstatic to finally see a movie that says, if you learn about science, maths, and how to be logical and rational, it might just save your life. You do not need to be trapped on Mars for a life guided by reason to be fruitful. The Martian makes science sexy, relatable, and fascinating; it is films like this that one hopes can change the widespread perception of science being incompatible with everyday life.
Besides panoramas of the gorgeously desolate Martian landscape, the only reused shot is of sprouting plants. The first comes after Mark has worked out how to grow potatoes inside his basecamp, showing a tiny, dew-covered stalk protruding from the arid soil. Mark lovingly caresses it with an outstretched finger, a sign that hope remains. The second use comes in the penultimate scene, with Mark now safe on Earth some years after being rescued; Mark sits on a bench in a University campus park, realising that a similarly miniscule leaf sits between his feet, surrounded by pebbles.
A single region of hope amongst the rubble and ruin, a meagre potential for new life amongst the trees. Everything matters, and yet anything can be forgotten. Amidst the optimism of unparalleled cooperation between minds to save one man, this image acts as a reminder that life goes on no matter what. Humans are more than capable of working together to achieve wonders, the space race of the 1960s proves this. But on the flip side is what we truly allowed to happen in Haiti; devastated by an earthquake five years ago, the initial surge of international support did little to curb the problems, and Haiti remains in disarray to this day. The Martian hints that people forgot about Mark Watney while NASA worked feverishly to save him. Our own lives are the extent of our concerns, and few truly care about others. The Martian is the ideal in this respect, the potential of our compassion as opposed to the reality.
Buts that’s not the world we live in. We are the pebbles, we are the arid soil. We disregard the potential – what humanity might achieve – because it seems an impossible goal requiring too much sacrifice. Ours is an age where we have abandoned the maxim of adventure as if it has no value. Adverse to John F. Kennedy’s famous words, ‘it’ is there but we will not climb it. If the journey isn’t comfortable, why try?
In real life NASA was heavily involved in the technical accuracy of the film’s science, and in the marketing scheme. For these reasons you can read The Martian as propaganda (the kind I completely agree with). The reality is that on its current course NASA will be putting the first humans on Mars in the late 2030s. In The Martian the third mission to Mars is taking place in 2029, and they have spacefaring vehicles far more advanced than what will actually be used. Every dollar spent on the ‘60s Apollo program returned 14 to the US economy; the benefits of exploration are written on every page of the history books, and the first time we have stopped – becoming dangerously insular as a race – is now. This film is what Interstellar wanted to be. It is closer to home and still far-reaching, emotionally poignant without being manipulative, and a manifesto for change with goals we are more than capable of reaching.
Ridley Scott has made his best movie in years, combining his best filmmaking traits: the hyper-realised world of alien landscapes a la Blade Runner and Alien, alongside the moment-to-moment joy of watching intelligent, funny characterisation unfold on screen, epitomised in Thelma and Louise. While I have focused on the science aspect, I cannot imagine anyone not liking The Martian because above all else, it is a joyful love letter to our immense capabilities as individuals and as a whole. Think Apollo 13 on steroids.
The reality is we genuinely don’t know how long we can last on this planet at our current gluttonous rates of consumption. What we do know is that no one wants to make an educated guess. The world of The Martian is the ideal that can certainly be our salvation.