Director: Ridley Scott
I’m terrible about seeing movies in any sort of timely fashion, but I finally caught Ridley Scott’s The Martian a couple of months ago. And then I saw it again last week after my wife and I bought a 55″ flatscreen TV. I’m not saying my old TV was a hunk of junk, but did you know Mars is red??? Fun fact and kind of a gamechanger. In both instances, The Martian was a great watch, the perfect ratio of science to fiction and brains to heart. Without spoiling too much, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist and one of six astronauts on a Mars expedition. When a violent dust storm arrives, Watney is hit by debris and knocked unconscious, but his suit’s biometrics incorrectly report that he’s dead. With the storm threatening to destroy their ship and thinking they’ve already lost one crew member, the mission commander, Melissa Lewis (played by Jessica Chastain), makes the quick (and justifiable) decision to bail the red planet. So, they leave Watney behind and he becomes the titular Martian, literally alone on Mars. Can you imagine being alone on a planet??? It’s like getting a flat on a desolate highway, only the highway is, best case scenario, 34 million miles away from the nearest mechanic.
The Martian is essentially like Cast Away in space or even a companion piece to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which came out in 2013. (I’ve heard it compared to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in part because that movie also includes Damon and Chastain in the ensemble cast, but I haven’t seen it yet.) After a couple of days understandably wallowing in self-pity, Watney literally shits his way to inspiration. He flushes the toilet when he realizes that poop is fertilizer, fertilizer grows vegetables, potatoes are vegetables (and are in his possession), and while potatoes are not in and of themselves a source of multiple vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients, they do have the advantage of being better than starvation. And while many people could’ve come to the fertilizer conclusion, it is particularly apt for Watney.
What I love about The Martian is that it’s a tribute to problem solving. Yes, Watney briefly feels sorry for himself on two different occasions, but the moment he realizes he can effect his own agency, he goes into action. He doesn’t whine, he works. He doesn’t engage in impotent outrage, he perseveres. He “sciences the shit out of” his horrible circumstance because that’s what fully realized, adult human beings do. And he makes mistakes because that’s part of the scientific method, too. Error is a critical part of trial and error. Most importantly, though, he never gives up.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler when I say that NASA eventually realizes Watney is alive and they start making plans to rescue him. Simultaneously, Watney goes from merely seeking to extend his life to attempting to communicate with Earth. I also don’t think it’s much of a spoiler when I say that these two storylines intersect and communication happens. At that point it becomes a matter of time and math. Either they rescue him before he runs out of provisions … or they don’t.
Speaking of communication, within the first few minutes of The Martian, Scott establishes very clever foreshadowing of what’s about to happen. The male crew members are busting each other’s balls over the radio when Beth Johanssen (played by Kate Mara) says sarcastically, “I’ll be happy to turn the radios off from here, Commander, just say the word.” Damon quickly replies, “Johanssen, constant communication is the hallmark of any team,” when Lewis comes in with an equally quick and stern, “Shut ’em off.”
Watney is correct, of course. Communication is the key to any team. So, being put in a position where he CAN’T communicate makes his situation that much more dire. That Scott has him record video logs is a clever plot device, but it’s also completely realistic. Humans are social creatures. We have to talk to someone, even if that someone is ourselves or a volleyball named Wilson. So, the video logs perform multiple functions. They allow Watney to create a record of his thoughts and actions in the likely event of his death, while also allowing us non-scientists a window into the scientific process. But, on a more basic human level, it gives him the illusion of constant communication. In the first half of the movie that communication is only one-way, but it’s something.
If the conservative in me appreciates the homage to hard work and perseverance, the liberal in me appreciates the homage to cooperation between genders, ethnicities, and nationalities. Men and women in NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory work together to rescue Watney. Meanwhile, China, a traditional movie villain — not to mention actual geopolitical villain — works with the U.S. to rescue Watney as well. The irony of this international collaboration is that Congress has banned NASA from engaging in cooperation with its Chinese counterpart due to security concerns. In The Martian‘s defense — both the movie and Andy Weir’s book upon which the movie was based — the narrative takes place in a not-too-distant future in which the U.S. and China could theoretically be space partners. Hey, that’s why it’s called science fiction.
HOW ABOUT THAT RIDLEY SCOTT???
I’ve only mentioned him in passing thus far, but Ridley Scott’s tone management and pacing are perfect, at least for me. I’m not a superhero comic book movie guy and I found the extended video game car chase that was Mad Max: Furious Runway Models to be very loud, very frustrating nothingness. I don’t need a constant dopamine rush. I want to be moved by tales of humanity, not bludgeoned repeatedly by the cinematic equivalent of heavy metal guitar solos. That Scott placed his deliberate narrative within starkly gorgeous Martian landscapes — which is to say, the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan — was a bonus.
It’s one thing to watch scientific problem solving, it’s quite another to see it take place amidst warm, saturated reds, oranges, and browns and deep, almost painfully contrasting blues. I loved how Scott played the claustrophobia of Watney being stuck inside of his spacesuit and the HAB — the artificial habitat where he lived — against the wide open immensity of Mars. That duality was a directorial masterstroke. It’s almost as if Ridley Scott knows a thing or two about directing movies. I think he’s got a future in this business.
If I have one quibble — and I’ll try to say this without being too spoilery — the scenes at the end of the film with the public cheering the goings on were probably unnecessary. They felt a little Rocky IV-ish. I get that the American and Chinese scientists were invested in Watney’s survival, but Times Square being filled to capacity rang a little false. I think if you removed those scenes from the movie it would be addition by subtraction. Granted, I loved virtually everything else about The Martian, so this is a relatively minor criticism.
BOURNE IN THE U.S.A.
If you asked me before I saw this movie if I was a Matt Damon fan, I would’ve said not really, and that dumb opinion would’ve been based on virtually nothing. I haven’t seen but a fraction of his filmography, but he’s been solid in every movie I’ve seen. The Martian, however, has completely sold me. He’s charming, smart, and funny (especially in regards to Commander Lewis’ disco collection), but melancholy, frustrated and angry when necessary. And all these emotions are underplayed. There’s no Daniel Day-Lewis histrionics, just subtle grace notes throughout. For a movie titled The Martian, it’s as much about being human as it is anything else, and credit for that is due as much to Damon as it is to Scott.
It’s hard not to go with the scene when Watney may or may not be rescued by Lewis in deep space — don’t wanna spoil anything. However, about halfway through the movie, when Watney finally, mercifully establishes communication with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory after 90+ days with zero human contact, his exclamatory “YES!” is genuinely emotional and truly earned. You have to feel for anyone SO isolated, but that he MacGyvered his way to contact with JPL had to be doubly gratifying for the man and the scientist.
Mark Watney: “I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars. There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. By another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies. So, Mars is international waters. Now, NASA is an American non-military organization, it owns the HAB. But, the second I walk outside I’m in international waters. So, here’s the cool part. I’m about to leave for the Schiaparelli Crater where I’m going to commandeer the Ares IV lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this and they can’t until I’m onboard the Ares IV. So, that means I’m going to be taking a craft over in international waters without permission, which by definition makes me a pirate. Mark Watney: Space Pirate.”
SECOND FAVORITE QUOTE
Mark Watney: “This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you — everything’s gonna go south — and you’re gonna say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems you get to come home.”
Final Verdict: 4.5 Martian potatoes out of 5