The Martian (film) is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.
Waking up to a blaring alarm in the morning is one thing, and quite a horrible thing at that, but waking up to a blaring ‘low oxygen’ alarm after being left for dead on the surface of Mars is quite another. Unfortunately for fictional botanist Mark Watney, that’s exactly what he has to face one bright martian morning in Andy Weir’s The Martian. Coincidentally I actually reviewed the book this movie is based off of a couple of years ago, but since this is Mars Week and a martian review seemed a necessity, this time I’ll be focusing on the movie instead.
The premise of The Martian is both surprisingly simple and surprisingly unlikely. Eighteen “sols”, the equivalent of an Earth day, after arriving on Mars, a team of six astronauts receives word that a massive dust storm is approaching at incredible speed. The storm poses no threat to their equipment, but one of the many absurdities of space exploration is that things that would be simple on Earth are surprisingly hard in space. If, for example, the high winds tip their rocket onto its side, they won’t be able to lift it upright again. And, with no way home, they will die of starvation before a supply mission can reach them. For this reason it is actually real NASA policy that astronauts must respond to any possibility of a rocket tipping with immediate evacuation, taking off before the storm can reach them.
“You can either accept [death], or you can get to work.”
This is exactly what Mark Watney’s team does, but as they start evacuating the first of the storm’s high winds rip their habitat’s communication antenna from the roof and send its sharpened end straight through our hero’s suit, knocking him off his feet and out of sight. The wound is not fatal, but unfortunately the antenna goes directly through the small radio unit responsible for broadcasting Watney’s vital signs to the rest of the crew. As far as the rest of the team is concerned, Watney’s heart stops right as the debris strikes him. Mourning the death of their friend, they evacuate and begin the return journey to Earth.
A few hours later, Watney wakes up, his only way to communicate with Earth stabbed through his stomach, a castaway on the surface of Mars.
One of the most brilliant things about this movie is the way it uses a found footage style to emphasize Watney’s predicament, featuring dozens of shots set up like security camera footage from inside the habitat and, perhaps more importantly, the video diary that Watney uses to cope with his isolation. Especially in the early scenes of the movie, when Watney is completely alone on an alien planet, the imperfection of those shots gives viewers a sense of living through such traumatic events with him. You can see the moment he stops grieving for the life he thinks is already lost, straightens his shoulders, and says “I’m not going to die here.” You can see him struggle and think and laugh and cry and watch as he finds ways to make himself persevere even when all seems lost.
It is a reminder of just what a good actor Matt Damon is, and after spending a couple of hours with the funny, irreverent, brilliant botanist he’s created you can’t help but like the guy, fictional as he may be, can’t help but laugh with him when he looks straight through the fourth wall and jokes about ketchup, space pirates, or disco music.
That holds true for all the characters, and I especially appreciated that the only villain in this movie is Mars itself. Everyone on screen, even when they disagree, is essentially trying to do the right thing. Whether it’s watching normally formal and serious NASA officials proudly name themselves Project Elrond, or feeling the sheer jubilation as all of NASA mission control erupts in cheers, or sharing in a tender moment between Watney and his astronaut crew, The Martian is a fundamentally hopeful story about people all over the world banding together to help someone. Even the planet Mars, arguably in a malicious role, is portrayed mainly for its soaring alien beauty. Watney is, after all, an astronaut, and even if he got more time on the red planet than he bargained for, he genuinely seems to take joy in overcoming the many challenges he faces. It’s a gloriously hopeful journey of a movie and I, for one, will always be happy to revisit it.