I never would have guessed that I’d have a rollicking good time watching a movie about a man left for dead on Mars. Space Opera Lite is what I would call Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015). And I mean that in the best way possible.
NASA astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars after he got impaled by a thin antenna and thrown away during an unpredicted and severe sandstorm. The Ares III crew, thinking him dead, was forced to evacuate the planet without him. With the communication systems destroyed and with only a limited number of supplies left, Mark Watney must draw on nothing but his smarts and determination in order to survive the harsh conditions of planet Mars until NASA’s Ares IV arrives, in four years time.
Looking at the movie poster it’s easy to assume that this will be a one-man, Matt Damon show. A Castaway in space, An All Is Lost in space. And I’ve already seen Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Do I need to see another one that’s 50 minutes longer to boot? But The Martian, refreshingly, goes in another direction. It’s true, it is about a man marooned in space, but the movie doesn’t dwell on isolation and loneliness, not for long stretches, no. Instead it lingers on the idea of humans as a social unit. We are a team, a crew, an army. And we leave no man behind. So we don’t just get frame after frame of Matt Damon on Mars, all by his lonesome. But it alternates with scenes of the NASA team on Earth, scrambling to carry out a succesful rescue mission. And rallying behind them, are people from all over the world, encouraging, hoping and wishing for our boy to reach home. There is that sense of community that comes with The Martian, and it makes the movie less cold. That and the fact that the entire film is given a light treatment. It has quips and banter that are sure to illicit quite a number of chuckles. And it has none of the scary and gloomy feel of Ridley’s Prometheus. It’s a fun space romp, less dark and bleak and suffocating than what we normally see from both the science fiction genre and Ridley Scott. And although Dariusz Wolski remains the cinematographer for both movies, this he approached differently. We get clear-eyed, panoramic shots of Mars, covered in a blanket of sunset orange, and we spot a tiny rover chugging along the vastness of the inhospitable terrain. It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring cinematography meant to emphasize man’s minuteness amidst space.
It has been said that The Martian is more hard science and less science fiction. And it is. Although I cannot vouch for the film’s scientific accuracy, not on all counts, I am no astrophysicist. But I feel that they have laid out whatever science they used in a manner that’s less fussy and more easily comprehensible to regular joes. There is technical jargon but they are not overwhelming to the point that it feels like we are watching a scientific paper translated on screen. And largely because they tempered the science talk with humor.
Matt Damon gives a winning performance. He commands the screen in each and every one of his takes. And he gives Mark Watney an air of relatability, a down-to-earth quality that makes us feel his distress, and immediately our hearts go out to him . I also cannot overlook the stellar ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Director of the Mars Mission, gives off an assured performance. His Kapoor will stop at nothing in order to get results from his team and ultimately bring back Watney. And Jeff Daniels makes a surprising turn as NASA director, with a performance that’s more Newsroom and less Dumb and Dumber. He plays off of Ejiofor’s character really well, and acts as a sort of resident “thwarter”. Same goes to Jessica Chastain’s strong portrayal of Commander Melissa Lewis, who goes about the rescue mission with the precision and accuracy of a well-oiled machine, and the magnanimous heart of a great leader.
“I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” says Mark Watney. And this statement encompasses The Martian’s purpose and that is to champion science (and NASA). With science we can solve anything and everything, we can overcome great odds, we can conquer space. And it could very well be the geeks who will inherit the earth. So fuck yeah, science!