The Martian Gives Space a Human Face

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

Humankind’s fascination with space has always existed on the boundary between two intellectual spheres. One conjures the image of a flag-toting pioneer standing on the edge of a vast cosmic horizon, ready to leap off the planetary surface into infinity. The other hits closer to home, focusing on the tangible landscapes of human accomplishment and innovation. Before we were able to leave Earth, literature and cinema painted space — sometimes literally, as with George Melies’ feverish lunar landscapes — as an untamed frontier ripe for exploration. We looked to the future with hope but, more importantly, with ambition, a mindset that ultimately landed Armstrong’s foot on the moon.

The Martian, Ridley Scott’s most recent filmic endeavor and his best work since Blade Runner, stands as an ode to the limitless potential of human innovation in the face of impossible odds, while juggling a sizable supporting cast with a keen sense of both wondrous scope and intimate heart. The performances at its center — including an infectious turn by Matt Damon as the titular stranded astronaut and an authoritative yet compassionate performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as a chief engineer at NASA — help to focus its sprawling array of characters, rendering The Martian a space drama for the ages.

A stirring opening sequence instantly focuses the narrative: a handful of scientists sent to Mars on the Ares III mission are caught in a torrential dust storm with nowhere to go but up. When one of the mission’s colleagues, Mark Watney, (Damon) is hit by stray debris and lost in the dark, the mission’s commander, Lewis (imbued with playful conviction by Jessica Chastain), is forced to make the difficult decision to leave him behind. As they depart into the atmosphere, his empty seat in the shuttle makes the commander’s profound guilt clear. This isn’t just a team of scientists — this is a group of friends.

Mark Watney, the stranded botanist, wakes up on the surface of Mars with a pole in his stomach, a failing oxygen supply and no help in sight. Left without any way to communicate with Earth, he is forced to rely on the scant supplies available to him to scrounge out a living on the face of a desolate planet. Scott’s directing brings home just how alone this man is, taking every beat in the storytelling to frame hauntingly stunning shots of Mars’ impeccably rendered surface. Once the film gets going, it’s hard to believe that the crew didn’t actually shoot it on the planet itself. The focus the first act holds on Watney’s personal struggle helps to illustrate the nature of his plight, but Scott’s directing would have been for nothing if the character’s airtight boots weren’t filled by an actor of Damon’s caliber. His everyman sensibility and calm, wisecracking charm give his seemingly never-ending days of isolation a welcome sense of progress, warmth and sizzling energy. The script, written with a deft hand by The Cabin in the Woods writer Drew Goddard, gives Damon plenty to chew on. All of this, combined with Scott’s often strikingly intimate camera, makes Watney’s every small accomplishment feel like a great victory; I could feel relief washing over the audience whenever one of the botanist’s wildly innovative solutions actually worked. Furthermore, the script — along with Damon’s natural pull as an actor — effectively communicates often complicated science in a simple manner, ensuring that anyone willing to try to understand won’t have a hard time following along.

Once the film’s scope broadens and the narrative extends its branches both to NASA and the returning crew of the Ares III, a less competent director, a vaguer script and a worse cast might have caused the movie to buckle under the weight of its own ambition. However, The Martian is blessed with the holy trinity of golden filmmaking. All three components align so effectively that the latter part of the narrative actually strengthens the film as a whole. Scott introduces a slew of compelling characters, a handful of surprising twists and turns and enough hilarious one-liners to keep the audience engaged right up to the explosive finale.

When Vincent Kapoor, an engineer at NASA, learns of Watney’s survival, he springs into action, setting into motion a movielength domino effect in which interns, tech geniuses and engineers all topple in a chaotic circle around an overwhelmed, apathetic director named Teddy Sanders (played by an appropriately cold Jeff Daniels). The tight writing keeps the interplay between these constantly shifting players witty, funny and logical — though if all the engineers at NASA were actually this hilarious, we probably wouldn’t have a space program. As the battle to bring Mark Watney home is waged both on Earth and on Mars, Watney’s character is expertly revealed through his actions, relying on more than just wisecracks to make him likeable. The way that NASA has to piece together what Watney’s next move is at the same time as the audience is indescribably satisfying; somehow, it feels like we’re both down on Earth with NASA and sharing that desolate outpost with Watney. Ejiofor’s relatable portrayal of Kapoor helps to ground the NASA narrative, and Benedict Wong consistently steals the screen as the hilariously exasperated engineer Bruce Ng.

To avoid taking the edge off the narrative, I’ll leave the rest to the film itself. Suffice to say that The Martian should be seen by everyone and not just because it’s a great movie. We live in a time where space travel, just like every other horizon of human progress, hinges on the interest of the public. That means you. We’ve crowdfunded spaceships, scouted distant galaxies through citizen science and made leaps only possible through the kinds of insane ideas one finds at a science fair. The Martian represents a new breed of popular science that seeks in turns to entertain, educate and inspire. Films like this shape the future. As a species, we can’t afford to lose the monumental cultural spark that The Martian provides because it will help propel us into the next generation of popular ambition.