Hard Sci-Fi Meets Humanity: The Martian

Alone on Mars. [via Popular Science]
Alone on Mars. [via Popular Science]
My friends have been excited for The Martian since it was announced, especially those of them who were captivated by the book it is based on, written by Andy Weir. We saw it this weekend, and I do not think anyone left the theatre disappointed.

The Martian takes everything that is satisfying and inspiring about science fiction and puts it together. Fragile humans making their way in inhospitable surroundings, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, gorgeous cinematography, intriguing science and jargon, and the triumph of human ingenuity and unity in the face of terrible odds. Plus, it has a killer cast. Would have liked to have seen some women of color in the mix but it is fair to say the depiction of white women and men of color was still generally favorable. I was pleased for example, by the presence of more than one woman on the Ares crew (especially because one was the commander– Jessica Chastain is stoic yet compassionate as Commander Lewis) as well as the fact that women actually exist in Mission Control. It speaks to the lack of these types of roles for women that my heart swelled when it was a female employee working on satellites who first noticed something amiss about the fate of astronaut Mark Watney, setting the stage for the film’s main conflict: figuring out how to get him home. Not only that, but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Donald Glover all give great performances as major players in the plan to bring Watney home. And of course, Michael Peña is delightful as smart-mouthed Ares crew member Martinez.

The premise of The Martian is deceptively simple. Astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars after his crew’s mission is aborted and he is thought to be dead after being struck by debris. When Mission Control notices movement at the Mars base camp via satellites and realizes Watney is alive, NASA must quickly come up with a plan to bring him back to Earth. There are many obstacles, human errors, and pure accidents that threaten to keep Watney alone on the red planet, but the film’s message is persistent throughout: keep trying, work the problem, get through it.

One thing I especially appreciate about this particular brand of sci-fi, the realistic NASA-focused type, is that there are no petty villains to distract from what is already a daunting and horrific main conflict. Every character besides Watney is invested in bringing him home. The bigwigs at NASA each have a unique perspective based on their field (the media relations director wants to maintain morale and public favor, the Mars missions director wants to fix the problem without derailing any other Mars missions, the Jet Propulsion Lab director wants hard facts and numbers to be able to best solve the problems at hand, and the director of NASA wants to do everything possible to avoid a disaster while also preserving the image and future of NASA itself) but they are all nonetheless working toward the same goal. Nothing gets my goat like a smarmy bureaucratic character thrown into the mix specifically to gum up the works, and blessedly there is no such character in The Martian. The actions of NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) may seem frustrating at times but they are never malicious or without explanation. This is surely due in part to Daniels’ stellar performance, equal parts collected, empathetic and no-nonsense.

Matt Damon of course gives a wonderfully charismatic performance as Watney, injecting the perfect degree of humor and hope into a story that could easily be depressing and dark. I went into this movie not knowing anything about it, and was pleasantly surprised by how unique of a character I found Watney to be, so I won’t spoil that experience by elaborating too much on his personality and role in the Ares crew. Better to just check it out for yourself.

Finally, I saw The Martian in 3D, with motion seating, and would definitely recommend the 3D experience. These days seeing a movie in 3D is a real gamble; sometimes it’s poorly executed and distracting, other times it simply feels like a gimmick, and rarely it truly enhances the movie-going experience. The Martian is certainly in the latter category. I felt enveloped in the film and the many shots of the empty Mars landscape took on a whole new grandeur in 3D. The motion seating, I have to admit, was also pretty cool. The seat rotated and shook at appropriate moments throughout the film, with the motion ranging from a smooth glide as the camera panned across Mars’ red dunes to violent rumbling during a storm. Though I obviously wouldn’t want to see every movie this way, combined with the 3D it really made for a memorable viewing. And The Martian is a memorable film, so why not indulge in a little adventure?

Hard Sci-Fi Meets Humanity: The Martian

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