Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Films of 2015: The Martian

Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) has now earned a number of Academy Award nominations including those for best actor (Matt Damon), and best picture.  

The Martian apparently directed itself, since Scott was not nominated for his significant role in crafting the film. 

But suffice it to say that The Martian’s nominations are well-deserved. This is a great science fiction film, and one of the two best genre films of the year (the other being Mad Max: Fury Road). 

Much superior to other recent “near future” films about the space age, like Gravity (2013), The Martian is, in a sense, a less-fanciful version or re-think of 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  

In both instances, a lone astronaut survives alone on the red planet using his only scientific skill-set.  

Only here, of course, we don’t meet alien slaves or slavers, and the focus is much more on the possible than on the fantastic. Robinson Crusoe on Mars brought aliens, alien spaceships and other wonders into the tale of human loneliness and fortitude, whereas The Martian simply focuses on a key issue: Man vs. Nature.  

In this case, that "Nature" belongs to different and infinitely more harsh world than ours: Mars.

Thrillingly, The Martian is precisely the science fiction movie our country and our planet needs and deserves at this juncture in history, when politicians are thinking small, stoking fear and resentment, and focusing very much on petty Earth-bound matters.

The Martian deftly, and without apology, reminds us that no frontier is off limits if we dedicate ourselves to conquering it. We must merely possess the will to conquer it.

Perhaps it’s not that we are Star Trekkian-like perfect beings -- at least not yet -- but rather that the individual fear of death -- coupled with the human race’s fear of stagnation -- can push us to the next horizon, and then the one beyond that. The Martian is realistic in its approach, and yet optimistic at the same time. It imagines that mankind can achieve big things, and do it under his own auspices.

What are those auspices? Knowledge. Training. Endurance. 

And no less important, imagination too.

We need The Martian now, indeed, because aspiring politicians routinely suggest that they somehow know better than the scientists do. Even though they have no training, and worse, no curiosity about how the universe works.

The Martian is very much about what happens when a dedicated, imaginative scientist is given a challenge, and rises to the occasion. The film will, I imagine, inspire many young people to become astronauts, botanists, physicists, or the like. And of course, that's a very good thing.

So Scott’s film reminds us -- in a sadly anti-intellectual time -- how knowledge, not ignorance, can transform not merely our lives, but the planets themselves.

“This is space. It does not cooperate.”

On a mission to Mars in 2035, astronaut Mark Watley (Damon) is injured during a terrible storm. His commanding officer, Lewis (Jessica Chastain), is unable to find him in the blizzard and forced to assume that Mark has died. She leaves the planet with the rest of the crew.

Against the odds, however, Watley is not dead, only wounded. He manages to return to the astronaut shelter on the surface, and face the fact that he has been abandoned, possesses no way to return home, and that another mission to Mars is not due to arrive from Earth for four years. 

Mark possesses approximately thirty-one days of life-support, which means he will have to improvise, and -- after rationing his supplies -- grow roughly three years of his own food.

Watley goes about solving this food problem by planting potatoes (using his own waste as fertilizer), and then faces the next crisis: He will have to travel fifty days in cold temperatures, in a rover, to reach the distant landing site.

Back on Earth, meanwhile, NASA learns from satellite footage that Watley has survived.  

Now the organization must rally and determine a way to bring the marooned astronaut home alive.  

One answer involves launch a second rocket, but a brilliant young physicist comes up with a plan to redirect Lewis’s ship back to Mars for an extraordinary orbital rendezvous...

“I am going to have to science the shit out of this.”

In my introduction above, I compared this film to Gravity. I believe that film is technically and visually brilliant, but when you think about it -- and its dramatic point -- for an length of time...you encounter disappointment.  

Basically, Gravity is about how the entire space program is pulped in one day, but one woman survives, and learns to deal with her personal demons (the death of a child). It only took the destruction of every shuttle, station, and satellite in orbit for her to accept her past traumas.  

Worse, the film makes no notation that though it is a good day for Sandra Bullock’s character, psychologically-speaking, it is a very sad day for mankind, and humanity's efforts in space. The space program, in that movie, would have been set back years, if not decades. And yet, we are expected to cheer when the scientist arrives home safely on Earth.

All I could think about was the future lost, destroyed, or prevented by the incidents of that terrible day.

The Martian adopts a different and far preferable creative strategy. 

It’s a movie about people navigating challenges -- in bureaucracies and on Mars -- and figuring out how science, technology, and know-how can rescue people and break boundaries.

It’s not merely about survival and escape, while the space program crashes and burns as a consequence. The Martian is about how the space program can achieve great things, even though death is always a possibility.  

The film’s protagonist, Mark Watley, is given no facile “back story” to conquer. There’s no Hollywood bullshit here to attempt to falsely manufacture psychological drama. Instead, Mark must keep his vision trained squarely on the present, battling each problem as it arise. He then uses his wit, skill, and training to conquer it. 

Watley pulls together every scrap of knowledge and training he has, but even that considerable effort is not enough. We see throughout the film that man survives not just when he is smart and adaptive, but when he employs his imagination. 

Mark isn't depressed, brooding, or angsty about the set-backs and reversals he encounters. 

On the contrary, he keeps engaging his imagination,considering new ways to survive and thrive.

Uniquely, The Martian shares an opening shot with Scott’s Prometheus (2012).  

In both films, the camera hurtles (relatively low to the ground) across an inhospitable surface. In Prometheus, that surface belongs to Earth, as the alien Engineers attempt to seed it with their DNA. 

In The Martian, that surface is Mars.  

In both cases, knowledge, reason, science and technology ultimately re-shape that surface to accommodate or welcome life.

It’s on a huge scale in Prometheus, and a small one (for now), in The Martian, but as Watley trenchantly notes, by growing his own food there, he has, by definition, colonized the planet. He has taken the first step of introducing new life to Mars.  

The Martian and Prometheus are polar opposites, or mirror reflections in another significant way. 

In Prometheus, the search for God is what impels man to the stars.  

In The Martian, man survives a harrowing space journey not on faith in a supernatural being, but by faith in his own abilities, ingenuity, and know-how. 

The two films provide a kind of perfect yin/yang in terms of philosophy.

One is about the literal search for God, and the divine within. The other is about mankind -- through his knowledge -- evolving into something, if not Godlike, then at least able to brave the dangerous realm of outer space.  

It's no accident, or coincidence, that Mark Watley puts a crucifix (belonging to another astronaut) to practical -- rather than spiritual -- use during the duration of the film. He must use his imagination, training, and every material he has on hand if he wishes to endure. There is no time to worship idols.

The two films -- Prometheus and The Martian -- work well together in tandem, as a Ridley Scott double feature, actually. 

One is a horror film about what terrors could await us in space. Prometheus reveals to audiences ow small we are in the scheme of Cosmic Things. When we meet our Maker, we are not ready for the knowledge that flows from that encounter.

Its philosophical book-end, The Martian is a hard science fiction film that suggests how we will already know, by 2035, enough to survive and flourish in our first steps away from Earth. We will face challenges, and we will beat them back. And we will learn from our successes.  We will tell others (as teachers), and build on them.

One reason I appreciate the work of Scott so much (in Prometheus, as well as here) is that he is persistently able to craft images and symbols that resonate in the imagination.

Here, early on, an empty chair looms large on the Martian escape ship (and in our imaginations), a reminder that an astronaut has been lost.  

Again, the typical dramatic bullshit approach would demand histrionics on the part of the commanding officer, or shipmates.Instead, we get no words, just close-ups of anguish, and of that empty seat.

And in the film’s climax, Mark practically bursts out of his capsule into a whirling void (in orbit). His only way to survive (and get home) is to cut his suit open, and utilize the escaping pressure as a means of directing himself through that void. 

This is a perfect symbol for man’s capacity to reshape fate, and nature, to his desire. We are all on a spinning surface too (the Earth), but we can direct its future with our technology, our science, our imagination, and our know how. We aren't just passengers.  We have the capacity to exert power and control over our environment.

I suppose The Martian could have proven a rather dry, life-less experience as a one-man-show, but through its use of disco music on the soundtrack, and the buoyancy of Matt Damon’s central performance, the film brilliantly comes to life. 

The soundtrack, straight from a hedonistic time and place in America culture, lightens the mood, provides stark contrast to Mark’s travails, and finally, calls us back to the last time in history -- the heyday of the Apollo program -- when America looked to the stars, dreamed, and then made real plans to reach them. 

The disco music, in essence, makes The Martian a kind of sequel to the early 1970s, before the combined weight of Vietnam, Watergate, Three Mile Island, Inflation, and Oil Embargoes brought human dreams crashing back to terra firma.

The leitmotif of The Martian is simple and worthwhile. 

Life is hard. 

And life in space is even harder. 

If we want to endure as a species, however, survival in space and on other worlds is a virtual necessity.  We can cry and whine about how dangerous the endeavor remains, how expensive it is, or even how time-consuming it is. 

Or we can look at the challenges…and, using our knowledge as a starting point, imagine how to beat them.  

As one character here memorably notes, “you can either accept” the difficulty of reality, and the constant nearness of death, “or get to work.”

The Martian reminds us that it is time to quit the bellyaching.

Let's get to work. 


  1. John,
    Great review. The Martian and Ex Machina were my favorite films of 2015. This film has so many scenes that could qualify for favorites when you ask readers to list them. Case in point: the power of Watley's simple declaration, "I'm not gonna die here."
    Your use of the film Gravity to contrast the differing viewpoints between approaching movies of similar subject matter could not be more apt. Personally, by the end of Gravity, I was done with hearing Sandra Bullock's character saying "I hate this." In The Martian, we are reminded time and again that these astronauts love being in space. It is implicit that they feel they are doing great good for humanity. Every single character, all the way down the line, has this trait. They want to be there. It's important. Their families can wait. They're united in their commitment.
    As for Gravity, I kept wondering why she even went into space to begin with. If your going to seek solace, might I suggest a week of sunsets in New Mexico?
    Some have called the ending of the film cheesy, but I strongly disagree. It's note perfect. This is a film about humans meeting the challenge of the future. It's not nihilist. It's hopeful.
    I love it for that.

  2. An excellent review. I'm looking forward to seeing how the book translated into film, and I know Scott is up to the challenge.

    But I still don't agree with you on "Gravity". I see where you are coming from, and comparing the two films is tempting. But for me "Gravity" was set up as a well made disaster film. And when you have a disaster film you're going to have massive destruction. In this case, the point was to keep her character moving from haven to haven and keeping her in peril and the audience at the edge of their seats. Giving her a character arc was part of getting us to care about her character. And yes, from the way you framed it, it appears pretty darn bizarre that she should cheer for her survival and mental peace at such a hideous cost. The kind of reflection on the destruction of the space program would have been perfect for a true science fiction film. but I would argue "Gravity" isn't a science fiction film. It is a disaster film with science fiction trappings.

  3. I found the parallels you made between The Martian and Prometheus very enlightening, John. I recently watched the film again on Blu-ray, and besides previously noticing the similarities between the storm on LV-223 that throws Shaw and the Engineer head in the bag for a loop and the storm that ultimately maroons Watney on Mars, I noticed the sounds emanating from the computer that initiated first contact with Watney by remotely moving the camera to point to Watney's handwritten yes and no signs were the sounds of the Nostromo computer receiving the warning message from LV-426 that woke the crew at the very beginning of the original Alien.

    I also noticed something that might be another parallel to Prometheus. Watney's rescue-by-tether seems like it might be borrowed from Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars. There are quite a few apparent allusions to Mission to Mars in Prometheus, and both films bear heavy reverence for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.