Story and science make ‘The Martian’ compelling sci-fi
Great sci-fi films combine visual effects, plausible science, and engaging characters who feel like real people. It’s a difficult balancing act between explosions and action, math and engineering, and an engrossing emotional journey. This is why great sci-fi films are so few and far between, and why The Martian gives me hope that this kind of movie can exist in the effects-ridden landscape of current sci-fi and action movies.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, part of a NASA expedition on Mars in the not-too-distant future. During a sudden storm on the red planet, the crew are forced to make an emergency departure, and Mark is struck by large debris and presumed dead. It is only after the dust has settled and the crew are well on their way back to Earth that Mark regains consciousness and finds himself abandoned on Mars with no functioning communication system and no water. He has two choices: give up and die, or try to survive. Thankfully, Mark is the mission’s botanist and devises a way to generate water and grow food, hoping he can buy himself enough time to meet up with NASA’s next planned mission, still several years away.
The movie, directed by sci-fi veteran Ridley Scott and adapted by Drew Goddard from a novel originally self-published by Andy Weir, has been fittingly compared to Cast Away and Apollo 13. Like Cast Away, the film hinges on a strong star who must deliver a solo performance and keep audiences engaged despite the inherent limits in having one guy on screen by himself for the majority of the movie. Like Apollo 13, the film places our hero in the the incredibly hostile environment of space, millions of miles from help, and challenges him to improvise a way to survive. The Martian succeeds in both areas, making the difficulties Watney faces seem very realistic and treacherous, and keeping the audience right there with him and cheering him on.
I’m a casual astronomy nerd, and while my math skills are far too terrible for engineering, I’ve always loved all those space exploration shows on NatGeo and the Science Channel. I love that The Martian contained science that felt real, within reach. Sometimes I struggle with sci-fi movies where the science seems more like fantasy than anything even remotely based in reality because the heroes face seemingly insurmountable odds, but come up with some shockingly easy fix like the often parodied “put on a jacket = computer virus” scenario in Independence Day. Yes, science fiction typically hinges on science that is currently still just fiction, but I prefer it when it feels at least plausible. It’s too easy to create some kind of technology deus ex machina in a script where a character is seemingly in total peril and then suddenly remembers that super-amazing-sciencey-device-thing that can suddenly save the day. While in reality, a dude abandoned on Mars would probably die within days, Watney’s survival methods seem like they operate within logic and reason, which makes the film so much more believable and his struggle to survive so much more captivating.
While Damon carries the film, the supporting cast deserves huge props for portraying people who feel real and three-dimensional. Jeff Daniels is the head of NASA, faced with trying to rescue Watney while Kristen Wiig helps him manage the potential PR disaster created by the entire incident. Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor lead the rescue efforts with Donald Glover introducing some wild card ideas and Benedict Wong heading up the JPL team. Mackenzie Davis is the technician who initially discovers that Watney is alive, and becomes lead on tracking his movements and trying to establish communication with him. While none of these people have elaborate backstories, they all feel natural and real, contributing to the team effort that is true of actual space operations. Then, of course, there’s Watney’s original crew, Jessica Chastian, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, and Sebastian Stan, who were forced to abandon their mission, and their friend, in order to save their own lives. Each of them brings a uniqueness to their characters, and conveys the emotional struggle of realizing you might have accidentally caused the death of a crewman while saving your own life. Chastain and Peña, in particular, stand out by feeling like actual people, not the fictional super astronauts we’re used to seeing in action-based sci-fi movies.
The Martian is a truly enjoyable film, whether you’re a science nerd or just someone who loves a good survival story. It’s so good, in fact, that it almost made me forgive Scott for the pretentious mess that was Prometheus. Damon proves to be a compelling lead, keeping the audience with him every treacherous step of the way as he talks into one of the many GoPros in the Mars habitat. We’re hopeful because Watney is hopeful, and we’re constantly impressed with his ability to problem solve even the most challenging scenarios. The Martian is a refreshing departure from the go-big-or-go-home sci-fi that saturates action movies these days. It’s a return to sci-fi that made story just as big of a star as science, and that makes it one fantastic film.