Written by Zac Fanni
It’s a question few of us are able to answer: how would we fare in a direct confrontation with our own demise? For stranded Astronaut Mark Watney, the answer is easy: it’s a chance to “science the shit” out of your own mortality. Mark’s can-do nerdiness and almost-petulant determination allows us to see the best version of ourselves, as people who insist on wonder and companionship when realizing the inevitability of death and isolation. The lucid simplicity of Mark’s struggle make us implicitly recognize its universality – it is, ultimately, something we all experience: a struggle against the encroaching entropy of the universe.
The Martian, director Ridley Scott’s most competent film in years, follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he regains consciousness after having been left for dead on Mars by his crew. Realizing that he has become the most isolated person in the history of the human species, Mark works to keep himself sane and alive amidst decaying technology, a cramped Hab, and a shrinking food source that is mitigated only by a steady supply of human shit and disco music. Oh, and he only has to make this all work for another four years, the time it takes for the next Ares mission (NASA’s fourth one) to reach Mars.
Paralleling Mark’s plight is the work of the NASA administration (led by Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) to bring him back. A tense series of problems follow (keeping a human alive on Mars is trickier than you think), and we watch how they play out on both planets. Damon is completely enthralling: he captures both Mark’s nerdy confidence and his underlying courage, that sideways smile always surfacing after every technological and psychological breakdown. The best parts of The Martian are when Damon is given room to captivate us with his sincerity and ingenuity.
Mark also serves as the lens through which we come to know his crewmates: Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). By using their abandoned items as aids in his survival, Watney reveals not only the depth of characters that (in less-talented actors) would otherwise remain one-dimensional, but he also makes us a part of his relationships with them.
This is one of the best examples of the film’s efficiency – every ancillary interaction directly contributes to our understanding of the story being told and the people that are a part of it. This pays off in big ways (a truly tense climax that makes us worry for a crew we’ve come to love) and small ones: we get a few delightful character scenes, from Commander Lewis’ relishing of an original ABBA 8-track tape (the sizeable disco collection that Watney tortures himself with is hers) to Martinez’s morbid-yet-still-hokey jokes about cannibalism. Whether it’s reluctantly listening to disco or shaving a wood crucifix for fuel, Watney expands our empathy beyond the confines of his Hab by making us a part of the intimacy that is shared by the crew.
However, the film’s use of tangible details isn’t always consistent. This is especially apparent in the NASA side of the story: given the impressive list of talent in The Martian (Sean Bean, Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig are only part of a truly impressive cast), the movie provides surprisingly little on-screen time for these actors. For many of these ancillary characters, the brevity works perfectly – the spectacular Benedict Wong (of Marco Polo) is able to use just a few lines to make us understand how Bruce Ng, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, uses humor to cope with the impossible weight of his responsibility.
Yet I could not help but leave The Martian wishing that a character like Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) was given more time to provide a dramatic and emotional context for his choices. His connection to the crew is logically obvious, but the movie never really makes you feel this connection like it does with Watney. Mitch’s relationship with the crew becomes something that is just asserted (and taken for granted) rather than shown. As a result, his moral outrage and extreme response to the NASA administration’s decision to keep Watney’s crew uninformed of his survival makes sense in terms of the plot, but it’s a decision that leaves too much of its dramatic impact on the film’s edge.
This is the problem with The Martian overall – too much happens on the periphery. The occasional lack of detail and characterization prevents the movie from consistently providing clear dramatic stakes that cultivate emotional impact. The central tension of the film comes down to the question of whether Watney will survive on Mars, while the novel’s meticulous use of detail allowed it to craft a series of escalating scenarios that were imbued with tangible suspense. In the novel, scenes of Mark having to adapt the oxygenator to his rover or having to devise a communication system with limited technology explicitly relate to one another and are contextualized to the point that you are aware of the individual risks inherent in each step that Watney takes in the survival process.
The airlock scene is a good example of the difference: in film, one of the airlocks to Watney’s Hab breaks, throwing the Hab’s interior (including Mark’s potato crop) across Mars’ barren surface. The scene is competently shot (Ridley is a brilliant visual filmmaker) and we immediately understand the gravity of the event – Mark’s food supply and habitat have been destroyed. However, in the novel this scene is presented in the context of the inexorable entropy that slowly makes all life a form of tense resistance. You understand the breaking airlock to be part of a larger physical process (the endless routine of pressurizing and depressurizing) that Mark can only abate, not defeat. This scene becomes one of the novel’s most brilliant, as it communicates a fundamental existential truth through physical detail and routine: existence inevitably wears itself out and eventually submits to the perpetual, indifferent forces that govern our cosmos.
If Andy Weir’s novel shows us the terrible and beautiful ways that science lends us an understanding of our own mortality, The Martian often pushes this scientific awe to the sidelines, leaving it to wait patiently (along with the underused acting talent) for the movie it might have been. Yet at its best, The Martian can make us cherish science both as a form of understanding and a cause for solidarity. Watney’s fight is our fight, and we hope, as he does, that our ability to work and dream together will give us the resolve required to face the void with a little bit of hope and a crooked smile.
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