The Martian

I’m actually really glad this film got adapted.

The Martian is that rare science fiction film that doesn’t play that tired old “human hubris” card when portraying stranded astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon’s) struggle against the Martian elements, or the efforts of the NASA administrators, engineers, and astronauts that try to save him. Instead, it celebrates human perseverance and scientific ingenuity in the face of certain disaster – and portrays manned Mars exploration in an aspirational light.

I was interested in The Martian for three main reasons; first, I’d read the book and was curious to know how the hybrid first-person third-person narrative translated to the big screen. Second, I wanted to see how a realistically rendered Martian landscape looked like on film. And last but definitely not least, to support a big budget hard-sf film, a rare enough unicorn in the cinematic landscape that its once-in-a-blue-moon appearances must be treasured.

So how did the film measure up on those three counts?

First, the filmmakers have done surprisingly well in transmuting the book into film. I don’t claim to remember too much of the book (I read it over a year ago), but the film covers most of its bases, and does so in a way that doesn’t seem rushed or padded out. In the book, Watney’s narrative is stuffed with jokes, pop-culture references and irreverent quips, and much of the book’s appeal comes from that humor. While I don’t think the film is quite as funny as the book, (and it certainly is somewhat grimmer than I remember the book to be in some moments), it does capture a large part of Watney’s sense of humor rather well. Watney’s narration in the book is captured in the movie as a series of video logs that Watney records of himself for posterity. The humor adds a much-needed touch of lightheartedness and optimism in what would be an otherwise cheerless two years in the Martian dust.

In terms of the Martian landscape, the film does a bang-up job, to the extent that I’d consider their depiction of Mars to be the best on yet shown in film (John Carter doesn’t count, because that’s Burroughs/Bradbury Old Mars). The redness, the bleakness is there, but so is that unbridled sense of wonder, the call of an untamed wilderness desert with its swirling dust storms and crimson rock formations. The Mars of The Martian should serve as a reminder of why humanity should send its explorers to Mars – it calls out to our essential wanderlust, our romantic desire to reach places unknown even in the midst of danger.

Which brings me to the last point – The Martian should be celebrated for what it doesn’t try to do – become yet another tired old cautionary tale warning against expanding the limits of our knowledge. In this aspect it benefits from its thematic similarity to the book. This film is like NASA propaganda, in the best possible way – a tale about how the ingenuity and hard work of its astronauts and ground staff overcame the challenge of space to bring back one of their own. Nobody screws up, nobody does anything stupid or illogical or evil (which, of course, was one of the annoying things about Scott’s other movie, Prometheus). It presents an optimistic vision of humanity, too. Not once is the need to save Watney questioned, despite the billions of dollars in taxpayers’ money that were needed to save him. They even threw in a little Sino-US relation-building content into the mix – when the Chinese volunteer the use of their classified rocket to help save Watney. For once, a film about space exploration is aspirational, rather than cautionary. Sure, tragedies and accidents can and do happen, but the fundamental drive of discovery is – as this film aptly demonstrates – an urge that should be met not with overweening caution, but a boldness and a dollop of irreverent ingenuity.

PS – The spinning Mars Pathfinder robot is adorable.

I give this film – 4 out of 5 Pathfinders

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