“The Martian” is adapted from the 2011 book of the same name by Andy Weir. It’s set in the not too distant future where NASA has actual funding and is exploring our solar system, namely with manned missions to Mars. The story follows the crew of the Hermes on their mission as they get hit by a violent storm that forces them to abandon the planet. Unfortunately the team’s botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), seemingly gets killed by flying debris as they make their escape. They head home thinking they lost a man, but the next day it turns out that Mark may not have been so lucky.
The central plot revolves around Mark trapped alone on Mars as he tries desperately to keep himself alive while NASA gets some kind of rescue operation underway. Considering how far from Earth he’s stranded, that’s not so easily accomplished.
Right off the bat this is kind of a strange film from director Ridley Scott. On the surface it might seem like a natural choice, considering his reputation with science fiction, but it’s really the tone that makes it stand out from his usual work. Amidst this story of man vs nature (a dead world’s nature, no less), realistic science, the difficulties of mounting a speedy rescue against technical limitations and the need for emergency funding, there’s a whole lot of irreverence and humor. Not something you normally associate with a dark Ridley Scott sci-fi. Instead of aliens bursting out of people’s guts, we get “Love Train” by the O’Jays. It makes you wonder if it was an attempt to repeat the success of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, another sci-fi where classic hits of the ‘70s made up most of the soundtrack.
The greatest strengths of “The Martian” probably come from the movie’s application of realistic, albeit desperate science. There’s a lot of time and detail put into the technicalities of how Mark communicates with Earth, the way his rescue is set up, and even just the little things like making the Martian soil fertile. It’s cleverly done in the story and the math and science behind it all, though explained by goofy nerds for the most part, is shown with little condescension when dealing with these terms and their uses. Mark’s lone experiences are the most interesting to watch, especially with how Mars is depicted in the movie. It looks incredibly realistic and believable, far less alien than it’s usually shown in other films. Rather than Damon clearly interacting with a green screen, it really looks like a dried up planet of endless sand and dirt.
As mentioned before, the tone is surprisingly upbeat and light, making sure that every character has their funny lines and enough snark to keep the audience happy. Whether it’s Lord of the Rings and Iron Man references from the nerds at NASA, the ‘70s disco soundtrack, or just Mark’s generally positive outlook, the movie goes out of its way to be crowd-pleasing and fun. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, here it might actually do the story a disservice. The lightness of the movie’s tone clashes with the very realistic approach to Mark’s peril and the desperation to save his life. The only reason he ever seems to be in danger is because the scientists or Mark himself says so. David Bowie’s “Starman” playing in the background makes you think otherwise.
In the end it robs you of any sense of relief. Take for instance the more recent “Gravity”; another movie in which the dangers of space are shown for the sake of action and suspense. In that movie, when the heroine finally gets out of harm’s way, there’s a tremendous weight lifted because of all that it took to escape the danger. In this, it’s just the natural expectation because how could they kill off such a fun-loving and positive guy? There wasn’t a doubt in my mind, no matter what new hurdle arose, that Mark might not make it home.
That’s not to say the movie is bad, but it loses a great deal of impact in its effort to be so fun and crowd-pleasing. Going it, it was most surprising that the movie didn’t remain entirely or even mostly with Mark on Mars. Instead it’s evenly distributed between his struggle and the efforts of NASA. Because of this they don’t dwell on Mark’s loneliness from the most extreme isolation possible other than his passing remark about being the only person on a planet. You ask me, that sounds like it would’ve been hard to deal with. Sure doesn’t seem like it, though.