“Mars will come to fear my botany powers”
Sometimes we need a good old-fashioned feel good tale that doesn’t talk down to us for smiles to unabashedly form at the movies. Ridley Scott‘s The Martian provides exactly that. You have a healthy dose of infectious humor, life and death suspense, space exploration to an uncharted planet, and Earth coming together for hope. It’s easy to find a depressing film putting utilitarian principles to work so one man can die for the many to live, so seeing a piece that throws caution to the wind for pure heroism in the face of impossible odds is refreshing. Grounding it in science that appears realistic whether it is or not only helps us to enter the adventure and understand each sacrifice endured to bring Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home.
It should be no surprise that Drew Goddard was the screenwriter tasked to adapt Andy Weir‘s 2011 novel once you settle in for the light-hearted fun in the face of danger replete with superhero references throughout. I won’t deny it’s still disappointing his continued success hasn’t allowed him to follow-up the brilliant yet almost-mothballed The Cabin in the Woods with studio support, but at least we can experience his convergence of humor and thrills regardless. The project was only green-lit once Scott and Damon became attached so their involvement is crucial to its success too. And while Goddard’s vision behind the lens might have infused some extra flair, Ridley definitely does the material justice. This is the type of story that epitomizes why we love the movies.
Even though we begin on Mars, the setting feels present-day. NASA is still very much relevant as a total of five ARES missions are on the docket with the crew currently on the surface comprising number three. With Watney’s botanist are Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). They’re all pretty easy-going, ribbing on each other before Lewis orders Beth to shut off coms for peace and quiet, but business-like as they mobilize at the first sign of danger. A storm is coming that risks toppling the spacecraft needed to return to the orbiting Hermes. The call to abort is made, but Watney is hit with debris before they can lift-off.
The titular “Martian” is born. Watney’s suit is punctured—the crew believing him dead from a lack of oxygen or freezing temperatures rendered legitimate—but fate keeps him breathing long enough to scurry to their habitat unit hours after the others escape. One could say it convenient that the botanist was left behind to possess the ability to harvest potatoes that will supplement his depleting rations, but Watney must accomplish a lot more than just that. The math and science he utilizes is far beyond the scientific study of plants and his disposition while doing it is inspiring. Most in his situation would probably fold under the pressure of anxiety or go stir crazy from isolation, but Mark simply starts a vlog and never stops pushing forward.
From here the film switches from mission control in Houston led by NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars Mission head Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to Watney on Mars. This could be a tedious scene structure for 140-minutes, but I never felt bored. There’s enough going on with all parties to never experience a lull in between. If Sanders and Kapoor aren’t making tough calls, Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is working his astrophysicists and engineers overtime to discover solutions to complex problems. And where Watney is concerned: survival is hardly a walk in the park. He must figure out his food problem, discover an ingenious way to finally communicate with Earth, and prove that duct tape really is a cure-all.
Real issues also crop up—more on the political spin, public relations front—that are relevant in the midst of such a crisis. It’s not like they left Watney in the 7-11 bathroom five thruway stops back; he’s on Mars. Even if they knew he was alive the moment they boarded Hermes, it would take four years to retrieve him. If not for his botany skills, Mark should be dead after one if he separates the six-person food supply left to its limits. Add that every day alive is another day for something catastrophic to occur in the unknown of planetary travel and you can understand why keeping his survival secret until a plan can be hatched is preferred. NASA’s a public entity, though, so transparency is necessity.
It’s a very cool aspect to the film because you get a grittier behind the scenes fight than you may expect from the trailers and Damon’s constant cheese. Sean Bean‘s Mitch Henderson must cross lines, information is withheld from the crew believing their friend dead, and the world’s perception of every step proves crucial to the continuation of what NASA is doing. Some moments of this struggle can be over-the-top—I like Donald Glover a lot but his Rich Purnell can be gratingly broad in his youthful enthusiasm coupled by ambivalence to authority—but the progression of events does feel authentic. Sprinkling in failures to really push the clock to the brink is also a welcome development as there’s a good chance Mars is simply too far away.
But we’re optimistic because Watney refuses to back down. People in space and on Earth all make sacrifices for a common goal—China even gets into the game—and it’s a beautifully utopian convergence we tragically only find during chaos. When you have a guy like Watney to support, though, it’s an easy choice to make. Here’s a guy chemistry-ing food, water, and oxygen in a desolate wasteland that’s quick-witted enough to realize he’s a space pirate colonizer of Mars. We know it’s merely a brave face to stay sane and entertain those who recover the vlogs if he dies, but you cannot tell for certain until the home stretch arrives. Only when he breaks down in tears do we fully grasp the miracle of all he’s accomplished.
 Courtesy of TIFF