Science in a leading role

Ridley Scott’s The Martian’

6 minute read
The ultimate geeky Everyman: Matt Damon in “The Martian.” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan - © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)
The ultimate geeky Everyman: Matt Damon in “The Martian.” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan - © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

I don't know for certain, but I'd be willing to bet that, frame for frame, the NASA logo appears more often in The Martian than any previous movie, including NASA's own voluminous library of actual mission footage. Ridley Scott's epic could be viewed as little more than one long $100 million promotional film for NASA and its Mars aspirations, an impression only encouraged by the agency's intensive and quite enthusiastic involvement in the film's production and promotion. Some overly cynical types have even claimed that NASA's recent announcement of liquid water on Mars was timed to coincide with the film's U.S. release.

Such criticisms would be unfair, however, because The Martian is far more than rah-rah flag-waving space-geek boosterism. It is, instead, a paean to humanity's exploratory drive, survival instinct, and most of all, intelligence.

The plot of the film is simplicity itself, probably known even to those who have only passing familiarity with the 2011 Andy Weir novel on which it's based. Matt Damon is astronaut Mark Watney, inadvertently stranded on the Red Planet and left for dead when disaster strikes and his Ares III expedition is forced to evacuate suddenly. The fact of his survival initially unknown to his crewmates or anyone back on Earth, Watney is confronted with the prospect of staying alive indefinitely on an alien world, alone, with only the natural resources of Mars and the technical tools at hand, facing an uncertain future — or oblivion.

It's an age-old plotline, of course, dating back to the stranded mariners of Greek lore, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and a venerable list of science fiction TV shows and movies, including Byron Haskin's 1964 Robinson Crusoe on Mars (featuring a pre-Batman Adam West), 1969's Marooned (directed by John Sturges and starring Gregory Peck), Ron Howard's 1995 Apollo 13, and most recently Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 Gravity.

Like those works, on a basic narrative level The Martian is firmly in the tradition of the first commandment of storytelling: put character up a tree (or in this case, Mars) and throw rocks at him. Those searching for deeply-felt probings into the human condition and penetrating character studies should look elsewhere. And that's okay, because that's the whole point. Matt Damon may be the "Martian" of the title, but as Franklin Institute Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts remarked at a recent press Q & A, "Science is really the lead character in the film." The Martian may be a film "by the numbers," but in this case that's a compliment rather than a criticism.

Nuts-and-bolts-and-duct-tape realism

It's a story of solving problems on a primal level, of figuring things out, of being smart, inventive, and resourceful. Unlike most of its aforementioned cinematic predecessors, The Martian eschews easy melodramatics for solid, nuts-and-bolts-and-duct-tape realism, yet never gets pedantic or patronizing. One exception is a scene in which a NASA techie explains gravity-assist trajectories to some characters who in real life would hardly require such explanations. But that's probably only annoying to those of us viewers who (like the other characters in the scene) already know about such things. The rest of the audience will probably find themselves learning a little science despite themselves.

For a Hollywood flick whose raison d'être is scientific and technological fact, The Martian does better than possibly any major film since Kubrick's 2001. There are a few scientific nits that can be picked here and there, if one chooses to geek out to such an anally retentive degree. I have not yet read Andy Weir's novel, but those who have tell me that the technical detail therein is exhaustive, perhaps overly so. But the movie avoids that pitfall. It's not really possible to go into detail without giving spoilers, but suffice it to say that the technical cavils are acceptably within the bounds of dramatic and narrative license. Rest assured that we are not talking about Armageddon, Independence Day, or even Gravity here.

Science: Donald Glover in “The Martian.” (Photo by Peter Mountain - © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)
Science: Donald Glover in “The Martian.” (Photo by Peter Mountain - © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.)

Nor does the film stretch credulity, logic, or audience patience by striving for some kind of cosmic profundity or deep philosophical significance, as did Christopher Nolan's stunning and spectacular but overly ambitious Interstellar last year (in which, oddly but coincidentally enough, an uncredited Matt Damon portrayed another astronaut stranded on another planet). Instead of lapsing into metaphysics, The Martian remains refreshingly focused, straightforward, and down to, well, Mars, doing what every astronaut from Alan Shepard to the current ISS crew has been trained to do when things go wrong: Stay calm, stay cool, and work the problem. Mark Watney's problem is staying alive until he can be rescued; for everyone else, the problem is getting him home, and the parallel and complementary efforts on both sides drive the narrative.

While The Martian is hardly the sort of film that focuses on acting and characterization, all involved do excellent work, emphasizing the essential team nature of the effort and the idiosyncrasies of NASA's institutional and social culture. But the film obviously turns on the performance of Damon, engagingly playing the ultimate geeky Everyman. As usual, Ridley Scott's direction and design are both technically and aesthetically impeccable, incidentally noting the singular fondness for spacesuits and violent planetary storms he first displayed way back in 1979's Alien. His Martian vistas are breathtaking and bleak, inspiring the spirit even as they highlight Watney's desperate yet splendid isolation.

Are we on our way to Mars?

No doubt NASA's technical assistance and promotional efforts for the movie (the recent Franklin Institute event featured both a genuine astronaut and the agency's director of Planetary Sciences) will boost visibility and public support for its Mars ambitions, extending beyond the small but vocal "Mars underground" of space advocates to the public at large. Which makes it all the more ironic that it may all ultimately backfire by making people believe and expect that the grand endeavors portrayed in the movie are closer to realization than they actually are.

Would that the actual NASA had even a fraction of its capabilities in this film, in which it mounts manned planetary voyages in huge spaceships, apparently all on its own and with its own money, while our real space agency can't even put its astronauts into low Earth orbit without paying Russia for a ride. But then, this is the movies, so such suspension of disbelief goes with the territory.

Still, in a culture where obtuseness, stupidity, and willful ignorance are not only accepted as virtues but also lauded in candidates for high political office, a film such as The Martian that eschews ideology, hype, and gushy sentimentality in favor of reason, rationality, calm practicality, and plain old indomitable human courage should be not just heartily welcomed but loudly celebrated.

Be warned, however: disco music haters might want to stay home.

For Alaina Mabaso's review, click here.

Author’s note: For those curious about the science in The Martian — good, bad, and in-between — I recommend this examination of what the movie got right and wrong; this article by Joel Achenbach, one of the best science writers out there; and this compilation of Tweets by everyone’s favorite contemporary scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Needless to say, spoiler alert!)

What, When, Where

The Martian. Ridley Scott directed. Screenplay by Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy Weir. Local showtimes.

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