‘The Martian,’ and dealing with (human) life on Mars

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/10/02/the-martian-and-dealing-with-human-life-on-mars/

It’s hard to imagine Ridley Scott casting someone else other than Matt Damon to play Mark Watney, the astronaut and botanist who spends more than a year stranded on Mars in “The Martian.”

Damon conveys such stoic good humor even in the face of overwhelming odds. Left behind when his captain and crew are forced to abandon the new Mars base in the middle of a ferocious sand storm, Damon’s Watney is first faced with the stark reality that any rescue attempt or supply rocket won’t get back to him until he’s long since starved to death. But as he takes stock of his situation and his surroundings, his confidence and survival instinct kick into high gear. He works out the math and figures out a way to ration his supplies — and more ingeniously — grow enough rows and rows of potatoes in a makeshift organic farm to keep him fed until the next ship can return.

Of course something goes wrong, and the team at NASA as well as his crew members on the ship already heading home have to think on their feet to figure out a way to rescue him.

What makes the film so enjoyable is how it plays against type. It’s great to see Sean Bean not playing a haunted medieval monarch doomed to betrayal, but instead the voice of conscience that prods and pushes his poker-faced NASA chief (Jeff Daniels) to do the right thing when politics and PR urge them all to just cut their losses and abandon Watney to his fate.

“The Martian” is a great movie for geeks — but if you’ve read Andy Weir’s e-book turned bestselling novel you already knew that. In addition to being a great story, “The Martian” is also a great testimony to humanity, with Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew pulling out all the stops to save one person at great risk to their lives. At a time when the daily news is filled with stories of refugees spilling into the Mediterranean and religious fanatics terrorizing Syria and Iraq, Hollywood has served up a much needed booster shot.

The British-born Scott continues to be the best director in movies when it comes to establishing place and atmosphere in film. Critics back in 1979 complained about the slow pace of his now classic “Alien,” but the time he spent establishing the ship was non-negotiable — it was too important to the rest of the story. So also here, he immerses the viewer in a breathtaking landscape, conveying a deep sense of how lonely — but also how beautiful — Mars must be.

And for all the odds against him, and he does have his dark night of the soul, Damon’s Watney never regrets his mission or his life. He knows he’s probably going to die, but space exploration, as he says to himself, is a big idea — bigger than any one person, certainly bigger than he is — and it’s been worth it, however disappointing the impending end of his own life may be.

Quibbles? Sure: I could’ve done without the obligatory montage set to a shopworn classic rock halfway through the movie. Same with the cheesy banter between the crewmembers about their pop music playlists. This isn’t really the fault of the filmmakers, as it’s also a feature of Weir’s novel. But more could’ve been done with the role of music and media for the castaway in his enforced solitude, and Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard could’ve departed from Weir’s storyline to broaden the characters.

But these are minor nitpicks for an otherwise enthralling space adventure. You won’t soon forget “The Martian” or its fantastic spaceship — one which I hope is on the drawing boards at NASA right now.

John Farrell is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaitre, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology from Basic Books. He writes about science, technology and media for Forbes.

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