Review: The Martian
The solutions to life’s problems are ‘science’ according to The Martian. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is an astronaut/botanist/bro who gets left stranded on Mars after a NASA mission is aborted and they think he’s dead. Watney makes a commitment to ‘science the shit out of this’ to survive. There’s a casual logic to The Martian that blends science-fiction with the attitude of a college grad with four popped collars.
Director Ridley Scott binges on optimism to show a world where NASA is a well-funded organization, journalists give space travel prime-time coverage and millions of people around the world gather to watch the footage on giant screens in public. Even a majority of the NASA employees look like they should be in a Taylor Swift video; the youth of America are all about scientific advancement yo! Scott’s interpretation of the near future in The Martian is in stark contrast with his iconic, dreary vision of the future in Alien and Blade Runner. One can’t help but think The Martian exists as atonement for a director, in his late 70s, wishing not to be known for his bleak ideas. The Martian is closer in tone to Scott’s A Good Year—yes, Scott is trying to do comedy, which is a stretch for a filmmaker known to be humourless—than any of his other films from the past decade with its feather light touch to a plot that mashes Cast Away and Apollo 13.
The Martian is obsessed with the ‘how’ and has little time for reflection on the ‘why’. It’s about the details of the rescue mission (once NASA figures out Watney is still alive) and how the lone astronaut is going to survive until help arrives. There are moments of genuine doubt as problems are work-shopped until logic is wrung dry and solutions arise. The Martian constantly reminds us it’s actively working through challenges rather than relying on a deus ex machina plot devices to save the day, which shows a huge amount of respect for attempting to put a smidge of ‘science’ into ‘science-fiction’. There are themes of collaboration and peace as people unite to save one man—there’s a distinct emphasis on America and China working together—but there’s never a chance for introspection with the guy stranded on an inhospitable planet who has a crazy amount of time to muse on life and the looming chance of death.
Drew Goddard’s script (adapting Andy Weir’s novel of the same name) chooses to focus on getting things done, and that’s the whole mantra for life in The Martian; get it done, move on, don’t get emotional; it’s robotic. Watney barley registers as a character with any human depth other than his ability to react to the situation with complete bro-ness. Damon plays it like a one-man show performance piece as Watney mansplains and cracks jokes to mounted cameras around the Mars compound. You never get a sense of who Watney really is, but does it matter? A life stranded is one worth saving because that’s what mankind does at its best. The importance is magnified because it’s a whopping great movie star that needs rescuing, so the need for an engaging character is mute. But, you don’t have to be an interesting character to validate being rescued, a life is a life, which is where The Martian finds a pinch of humanity—exemplified by the selfless crew of astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Askel Hennie playing the nicest people ever) sent on the rescue mission that provides the film with the biggest stakes.
There are touches of humour to break the automation, mainly a running gag about disco music as the only genre Watley has available on Mars. Scott and Goddard pair songs with situations for the maximum amount of comedic irony. The Martian also deserves kudos for diversity with a cast put together like a United Colours of Benneton ad campaign. It’s close to a pseudo-origin of Gene Roddenberry’s Starfleet in Star Trek but never overemphasised for the sake of making a point, it’s subtle, and fits in with Scott’s theme of peace.
The Martian has a lot of hopeful swagger but its warmth gets iced by a relaxed arrogance. It’s film that approaches you like a meat-head at a gym and asks, ‘bro, do you even science?’
The Popcorn Junkie