The words “science fiction” often conjure up images of green antenna-headed aliens or UFOs descending from the sky firing red lasers. Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to this type of science fiction, after all he gave us one of its greatest films in Alien. But with his newest the legendary director gives us a refreshingly new take on the genre, one with more emphasis on the “science” than the “fiction”.
For more than a month last year I jogged, rode the subway, and stood in line at the bank with the audiobook version of Andy Weir’s The Martian playing in my earbuds. The story tells of NASA astronaut Mark Watney stranded on the red planet after he is presumed dead during a storm which forces his crew mates to evacuate. Weir’s novel is a rigorously researched tale of survival as his protagonist must call upon every bit of knowledge and training in order to problem-solve his way out of everything the hostile environment throws at him. The book could be slow at times, as Weir doesn’t hesitate to go into the mathematical nitty-gritty, but it’s carried along by its charismatic narrator and a pervading feeling of reality. “This is what it would be like”, I said to myself. “This is what people at NASA do.” When I heard Ridley Scott was adapting the novel for the screen I ignored those nagging memories of Prometheus and hoped for the best. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Martian eschews any cheap thrills or fabricated conflict in favour of realism and scientific accuracy, and that’s really what makes it special.
More than anything Ridley Scott’s film does the novel justice. Drew Goddard’s screenplay tightens up the story and beefs up the action, but maintains the scientifically minded tone. He’s aided by the very handy diary style of the book, in which Watney provides the bulk of necessary exposition while attempting to fix his HAB (a large, igloo style shelter/laboratory on the surface) and grow crops in the harsh martian soil. This also allows for a very personal performance from Matt Damon, who talks through his problems with an assortment of strategically placed GoPros because, well, he has no one else to talk to.
Meanwhile back at NASA, Director of Mars Missions Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discover that Mark is alive, and set about lobbying NASA Director Teddy Saunders (Jeff Daniels) to begin a mission to bring him food. Hovering over this discussion is the question of whether to inform the Aries III crew – currently on their return to Earth after leaving Mars – about their stranded crew mate.
The Martian eschews any cheap thrills or fabricated conflict in favour of realism and scientific accuracy, and that’s really what makes it special. The film is a testament to the power of collaboration and must be the most realistic vision of NASA ever put on screen. In fact it could be a commercial for the space program. The film suggests that a mission to Mars could capture the public attention in the same way the Apollo missions did, and place the world’s space agencies back at the centre of our collective imaginations.
It’s also a lot of fun. The film’s ensemble cast all have their moments to shine but it’s Damon’s sarcastic, irreverent Mark Watney, maintaining his sense of humour and humility even in the face of near certain death, that carries the day. If the novel can make this almost thirty-year old film critic dream of being an astronaut while waiting in the bank line, this film will certainly open the imaginations of thousands of kids. Kids who are more than likely to see a real astronaut step onto Mars in their lifetime.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.