(20th Century Fox, 2015)
The Martian starts out like most Mars movies. That is, it begins on the red planet, Mars. Everything is red. And as usual, humans are trying to get out of an approaching sand storm. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the Ares 3 Botanist. I get the impression that with Mars being a lifeless planet, he doesn’t have much to do on this trip.
But all of that’s about to change.
The approaching storm quickly forces our six easygoing astronauts to get serious. They have to leave Mars because the wind is going to topple over their transport ship. During their escape, Mark is injured and lost in the storm. Presumed dead, Mark gets left behind as the crew regretfully leaves as their ship is about to fall over.
Only Mark isn’t dead. But he might as well be, because the next Mars mission, Ares 4, is years away, Ares 3 was only supposed to last 30 days. What follows, in the shadow of Robinson Crusoe, is one man’s attempt to beat overwhelming odds of survival. Mark battles challenge after challenge, most of them the kind that you and I would think impossible. Not so for Watney.
NASA collaborated closely with the producers of the movie on The Martian, because their scientists saw it as free PR for the space program. Those impossible things that take place on film are actually quite possible in most cases according to NASA, just difficult. Remarkably, what results is an incredibly geeky but smart movie that has enough action and subplots to move things along nicely. Some of it reminded me of Apollo 13, but here, not everyone on Earth is exactly on Mark’s side.
Still thinking him dead, some folks at NASA want to move on as quickly as possible. Then, there is the crew of Ares 3 on their way back to earth, a yearlong journey. How will they react to Mark’s survival after leaving him for dead?
There’s no time travel in The Martian, no supernatural God of Mars, just pure human effort and science. Matt Damon brings along a strong supporting cast, with Jessica Chastain as his superior officer, Captain Lewis. Michael Pena as one of the crew is funny just because of his down-to-earth approach to life. And Jeff Daniels, as head of NASA, is the ultimate politician, willing to do anything as long as it continues his space program.
There are a few nods to other space movies, including Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but mostly the film follows Andy Weir’s novel. Speaking of which, the novel is itself a technological marvel, in that The Martian was self-published by Weir a chapter at a time on his website. When it was completed, he sold it on Amazon for 99 cents a copy, and word of mouth quickly made it a bestseller. After selling 35,000 copies of the eBook in three months, print publishers finally started to wake up.
Like the book, there’s a bit of adult language in the movie. Mark Watney is a strong headed, determined guy. His expletives, handled for a PG-13 audience, remind us of our own frustrations and struggles when things don’t work out.
The movie runs a little too long in my opinion, but none of the scenes of the Mars landscape include throwaway stuff. When Mark talks to his crewmates, explaining what it’s like living for months alone, he says “I go outside in my suit every day and just sit there, looking at the red hills and sky, just because I can. “
The Martian is rated PG-13 for a smidgen of language and a scene of self-surgery. Enjoy!