Space exploration is one of the grandest testaments to human ingenuity and cooperation. It offers a rich vision of human potential, and a special way to learn about the beauty of creation. It provides a rich seam of imagination for storytellers to mine.
One of the masters of the genre is Ridley Scott, whose Alien (1979) is a terrifying exploration of the dark side of space. Now he does something different in the witty and uplifting blockbuster, The Martian.
The Ares III manned Mars mission is on Sol (Martian Day) 18 of a 31-sol mission, when a warning is received from NASA about an impending mega-storm. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) makes the decision to abort the mission and the astronauts make their way through the storm to the MAV (Mars Assent Vehicle) to return them to the orbiting Hermes. While evacuating, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is blown away by debris, and with his suit’s signal lost, he is presumed dead.
The crew – pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), system operator Beth Johannsen (Kate Mara), surgeon Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and navigator/chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) – blast off just in time when Lewis returns, unable find Watney.
Back on Earth, NASA director Theodore “Teddy” Sanders (Jeff Daniels) gives a press briefing about the evacuation and the death of Watney. Afterwards, Dr Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), NASA’s Mars Mission director, encourages Sanders to get satellite imagery of the remains of the Ares III mission to examine the damage.
Back on Mars, Watney awakes and makes it back to the Hab – the temporary artificial habitat that the astronauts called home – just in time to deal with his injury and work out a course of action.
On Earth, Kapoor gets satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) to check out the coordinates of the Hab. NASA discovers that Watney is alive and now has to decide what to do.
The action switches back and forth between Mars and Earth. Botanist Watney keeps video logs of his situation, wisecracking all the time, while “sciencing” his way to survival by growing crops and finding a way to make contact, all the while dealing with the “horror” of there only being disco music to listen to.
Drew Goddard, the executive producer of the Marvel Netflix series, Daredevil, adapted The Martian from Andy Weir’s bestselling “nerd thriller” novel of the same name. The genre is the sort that the science-minded love, with realistic problem solving keeping the action moving, combined with nerdy humour. Think Mythbusters in space, or the engineering scenes from Apollo 13 (1995).
NASA has keenly supported the film, hoping that it can encourage kids to study science. It has been shown on the International Space Station, where it received an enthusiastic response from the astronauts.
However, despite its attempt at accuracy, there are some issues, most notably the fact that Mars could not have a mega-storm due to its thin atmosphere – which goes to show that even science nerds have to work within dramatic conventions.
There is a depressingly common trend in storytelling that claims that awfulness is the nature of things, and that for a something to be “realistic” it must wallow in misery. This “aesthetic of sordidness” dominates the art-house scene, and is prevalent in certain high-budget TV series.
It is also a lie, just as much as the lightweight artificial happiness, the “aesthetic of the saccharine”, that has been part of mainstream cinema, is a lie. Real life involves both, and the great masters have always known this.
The Martian is an elegant film that is “humanist” in the best sense of the word. It sees science as a means to an end, not an end in itself, unlike Tomorrowland’s almost religious zeal; and rather than the cryptic metaphysics of Interstellar, it gives a simple story of folk helping each other out in space.
John F. Kennedy, speaking on the Apollo space program, cast it as a great mission for humanity, a way to promote human flourishing and cooperation. Despite its immense cost, space exploration brings with great benefits, from the intangibles, such as going where no man has gone before, to the array of technologies pioneered and refined by space agencies. More than this, it encourages nations to work together for a common goal, suggesting that it is possible to solve more earthbound problems.
Overarching the action of The Martian are the lines from the trailer, which come from the book – that human beings have a universal drive to help each other, that we are better than the darker impulses of our natures, and that goodness is possible.
This is not a denial of evil, but an affirmation that it can be overcome.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCE).