It might be easier if we just consider Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian as a trilogy. These lavish dramatizations of outer space peril aren’t formally linked, and each is the work of an auteur, arguably, who might balk at the idea of his personal vision being wrangled into a collective one. But the three filmmakers share an idea of the multiplex: A place where the audience can carry its sense of humankind’s precarious position in the universe and find its unease amplified and finally answered, rather than a place where authentic fears either get checked at the door or obliterated by spectacle.
Director: Ridley Scott
Producers: Mark Huffam, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood
Writers: Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (book)
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan
Premiere: September 11, 2015 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 2, 2015
US Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Ever since Lars von Trier crushed planet Earth like a speck of dust in 2011’s Melancholia, the Hollywood corrective, where characters face the ultimate oblivion but survive via ingenuity, has been a nice balm. Even more so than Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian motors along on plot and, despite a running time well over two hours, doesn’t have enough minutes or enough silence to seek out images that haunt or linger past its bravura finale. It answers the trilogy’s central question of human survival by hinging it on a simple rescue plot mechanism, but it does have one advantage the other two films don’t: it’s hard science fiction to its core. When Gravity sets objects ping-ponging around in space and Interstellar ventures into a black hole, they set plausibility aside in favor of cinematic ambition. The Martian attempts to stay firmly grounded in science, however fantastically applied.
The source material is a heavily researched 2011 novel of the same name by programmer turned writer Andy Weir, for whom the concept’s scientific accuracy was a guiding principle. The story’s a survival guide of sorts, with American astronaut and botanist Mark Watney finding ways to keep himself alive on Mars while the people back on Earth engineer his rescue. The film version plays at times like a scientist-author’s ultimate and well-earned self-aggrandizement. In the book, Weir wrote his own heroism via imaginary problem solving and now Matt Damon steps in to play the hero. I might’ve liked to see almost anyone else in the role of Mark, but there was no reason to expect visionary casting for Ridley Scott’s follow-up to Exodus: Gods and Kings, in which Christian Bale starred as Moses. And, I’ll admit, Damon’s ideal for this part, not least because he’s the movie star Weir would perhaps most like to imagine himself as. With his irreverent side on full display, Damon’s also largely responsible for the film’s surprising emphasis on humor.
While the scientists at NASA have trouble interpreting Mark’s tone from their correspondence with him (what exactly does he mean by “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” they wonder), Damon’s tone, face-to-face with the audience in a series of video journals, is unmistakable. As he lays out his Mars survival guide, he’s another relic of the publishing industry: the narrator who’s funny and vital in the face of certain death. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” Mark says after he first counts up all the ways that death waits for him on an inhospitable planet, and his ensuing activities are neatly laid out like an extended, big-budget version of an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. The book’s hard-earned scientific discovery is condensed to a quick series of epiphanies, with little time left over to explore the enormity of Mark’s predicament, except as a problem to be solved. While recording one of his journals, he realizes he’s “the first person to be alone on an entire planet,” but the film never holds an image long enough to let the idea sink in. A night scene in which Mark tries to ignore the wind storm battering his meager shelter is one of the rare moments of true desolation.
The film cheats, too, often because it can’t help exploiting its crowd-pleasing potential. Mark’s final rescue from Mars is broadcast on Earth with a 12-minute delay, we’re told, but Scott mixes up the timeline and crosscuts scenes of mass breath-holding and jubilation with a silent mission in the void of space millions of miles away. But that’s part of the DNA of a story that locates its optimism in human cooperation and collective goal-setting. The Martian would fall apart if any of the characters believed for a second that Mark’s physical existence on a different planet made his presence any less felt on Earth, made his value as a citizen any less immediate. The Martian is popular art about the hyper-connected world, and can be admired on those terms. Just as there are people who privilege the TV procedural over less schematic kinds of storytelling, there are those who’ll consider The Martian a better film than Gravity or Interstellar. I wouldn’t go that far, but its confidence is seductive. Where a lot of science fiction struggles with ideas of home, The Martian remains certain that we’re home anywhere we can get messages to each other.