Neil Armstrong was so 1969. None of that man-mankind parallel for Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in the 2030s. Every step he takes is a leap. “The first man to walk outside this probe”, “the first man to climb that hill”, “the first man to walk here… there”, “the coloniser of Mars”, “the space pirate”, “the Ironman” — Watney gleefully assigns himself all of those titles.
Glee, to be precise, is the underlying narrative of this surprisingly optimistic space tale from the director who gave us Alien. ‘Man stranded on Mars’ is just the setting. ‘No man left behind’ is the subtext.
A botanist, Mark is on a Mars mission led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain). He is out doing his thing one day when a storm hits, his suit gets pierced, and Lewis takes off with the rest of the crew, believing Mark to be dead.
When an injured Mark comes to, he is impressively placid about it. After a self-surgery, shot in long and extreme close-up (the closest The Martian comes to physical discomfort), Mark goes about speaking aloud his chances in a video log he starts. That he probably won’t survive ranks high on his check-list.
However, Mark has things going for him too, particularly the fact that this is a ‘NASA mission’. So he has food to last a couple of months, stuff that can come in handy to rustle up rest, and most importantly people on Earth working hard to get him home once they have realised he is alive.
Mark proves resourceful, figuring out how to make his power last, his supplies linger, and finally to make enough water to harvest 400-something potatoes — those droplets of water are a clear act of genius. “Luckily, I am a botanist,” he notes.
This inter-cutting between Earth and Mars at times works wonderfully (such as in re-establishing communication), but often just adds to the cockiness surrounding the film. It’s clear where the sympathies of the Andy Weir-written film lie, with NASA Director Sanders’s (Daniels) time taken as much by managing the media (unconvincingly) as with ensuring Mark is kept, and returned, alive. The media manager (Wiig, a strange choice given that you keep expecting a twist) is a presence at each of the crisis meetings.
When NASA is not doing PR, all its various wings (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, particularly) are working hard on solutions.
Meanwhile, Mark continues to “science the shit out of things”, including making a rover go further and using a radioactive isotope as heat source.
While we get a glorious idea of what Mars or a mission to it might entail (the film was shot in Jordan) — no, there won’t be no Martians — Mark doesn’t face any major mishaps of the kind that made The Gravity such a heart-stopper, or the complications that made Interstellar such a talking point. At least nothing that halts Mark for longer than a video log entry.
And wasn’t it Scott who first underlined the value of silence in space — “In space no one can hear you scream (Alien)”? In The Martian, the chatter never stops. Particularly when “the whole world is rooting for one man”.
Matt Damon, the handsome all-American hero, shoulders the weight well, though the only growth his character shows (after nearly two years alone) is a straggly beard. Quickly shaved off.
India, which has a Mars mission under its belt, gets barely a mention in this ethnically diverse set-up. Well, there is a Vincent Kapoor as one of the main guys, but it is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. When NASA needs help, guess who shows up, opening a trade secret? China (with no Mars credits yet).
However, political correctness or market mechanics are secondary. At a time when the race to Mars is heating up, when 100 people have signed up for a journey with no return, when ‘Mars has water!’ has just hit the headlines, and when Vegas bookmakers are giving the maverick Elon Musk a better chance to get a man on the Red Planet than NASA, this is clearly the best vehicle the American space agency could have asked for. NASA is loyally promoting the film on its website.
If The Martian won’t open the US purse-strings for NASA, nothing will. Though that shot of Kate Mara jogging in a spaceship, with stars in the backdrop, could suffice.
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean
Directed by Ridley Scott