Martian, The (2016): Ridley Scott’s Thrilling Sci-Fi Epic, Starring Matt Damon in Oscar-Caliber Performance

the_martian_6_damonAfter a decade of making lousy or mediocre films that were critical flops and commercial disappointments, Ridley Scott is back on terra ferma with The Martian, a sci-fi that’s visually stunning and emotionally satisfying.

One of the best visual storytellers of the past three decades, Scott has been quite versatile (eclectic?), trying his hand in a variety of genres, the nonsensical Prometheus, the dull biblical epos, Exodus: Gods and Kings, the boring historical saga, Robin Hood, and the more contemporary, The Counselor, a movie of some good parts that didn’t cohere.

The Martian may not belong to Scott’s film pantheon–which includes AlienBlade Runner, and Thelma and Louise–but it’s an interesting film on many levels, and a rather good adaptation of a complex best-selling novel.

Matt Damon is well cast as Mark Watney, playing his second stranded-astronaut after appearing in Christ Nolan’s Interstellar (also against Jessica Chastain).  Thematically a survival drama, The Martian evokes Gravity, with Sandra Bullock, and Cast Away, with Tom Hanks, among other films.  Though unlike these sagas, Scott’s contains humor, expressed by Watney in voice-over narration, while serving as the butt of his jokes.

Watney, an astronaut and botanist, finds himself alone on Mars after an unexpected storm forces his team to high-tail it back to Earth.  They assume that, due to a freak accident, he has been killed.  Considering the wide climate range, the desolate landscape, the lack of habitable conditions,  Watney’s inability to communicate with NASA and the length of time before the next mission is scheduled to arrive, all the odds are against Watney’s survival; he seems doomed to die alone.

The NASA is a varied group, composed of administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), PR chief Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), top scientist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and astrodynamics whiz kid Rich Purnell (Donald Glover).  Upon discovery that Watney is alive, they are frantically trying to launch a rescue mission.

Among many memorable scenes is when Mark Watney is told that his fellow crew members have not yet been informed that he’s alive. He starts cussing and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the NASA officer, tells him to stop right away because his his comments are going live all over the world. Without taking a pause, Watney simply continues cursing.

What You Need to Know:

Mars is an unwelcoming enviornment, to say the least. Its wide temperature range, from -153°C to around 22°C on a summer day, makes for tricky wardrobe choices. Layering can only take you so far.  Breathing is even more problematic. The air is 95 percent carbon dioxide. The soil lacks bacteria needed to grow food. Water exists, but only as ice.

Its reddish color acts as a warning sign.  There is nothing there except for high risks of quick death by asphyxiation and hypothermia.  But strong individuals like Watney have never been deterred from going where they are not wanted, and so they go to Mars.

Creating an artificial living habitat (Hab) is necessary to facilitate human exploration of the planet.  NASA/JPL has for four years been using unmanned probes to airdrop pre-fabricated parts for assembling a Hab, along with various supplies, food and equipment. The Ares III crew will arrive to such amenities as computers, fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner and a badass ATV known as the Rover.  A Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) stands by to return them to the Hermes after their 31-sol mission.

The story begins on sol 18, after the crew has already assembled its Hab: a pressurized canvass structure with 90 square meters of floor space. Significant amounts of solar and neutron radiation penetrate Mars’ thin atmosphere, requiring the Hab to be paneled on the outside with filtering layers of Kevlar and Mylar foils and upholstered foam material.

The Hab’s interior provides sparse sleeping quarters, a shared work area, pressurizing airlocks for entry and exit, and compact storage for equipment – as well as such life-sustaining appliances as an oxygenator, atmospheric regulator and water reclaimer.  It’s stocked with enough rations to last six astronauts a precautionary 68 sols. With just Watney remaining, that will stretch to 400 sols.  It’s enough to buy time, but likely not enough to last until a rescue mission can arrive.

Watney devises a way to provide the necessary bacteria to make Martian soil fertile for growing more spuds. The humble potato, which once saved an entire civilization from starvation, is again called upon to sustain human life, on another planet. One problem solved.   Watney uses the Rover to track down the defunct Pathfinder probe, last heard from in 1997.

He uses its camera to rig up a way to communicate with NASA and JPL.  He even figures out how to create more oxygen.

Watney has pressurized shelter and oxygen. Food, and a way to grow more. Water, and the knowledge to make more. He can communicate with NASA, with whom he exchanges both jokes and choice words when disagreeing with their directives.  If nothing else goes wrong, the odds of his survival have increased dramatically, after the first, intensely dramatic scene, in which he pulls a piece of antenna out of his abdomen.

But something does go wrong.  A terrifying incident destroys Watney’s hard work–and his optimism.  The clock begins ticking, and NASA’s rescue timeline is blown to pieces. A sense of urgency is replaced by the feeling of pending disaster.

In the film’s second half we observe a man in peril and a whole world transfixed by his personal drama via global and sophisticated technology.  There are only a handful of scientists and astronauts who are able to make the kinds of decisions that could save him.

From Houston to Beijing, Melbourne to Moscow, people are spellbound by Watney’s plight because he is more than an astronaut; he is a symbol. His crisis is testing some of our planet’s best thinkers, who are not just trying to rescue a single human being; they’re trying to rescue the aspirations of humanity.

In its broader meaning the film’s text posits Mars versus Earthlings, while the whole world is watching and rooting for the home team.