Ridley Scott film’s The Martian is probably the most persuasive publicity for NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). It has six good-looking actors who portray the roles of astronauts, as if being in space is not cool enough. Also, it uses actual science for the most part, something that the geeks must be rejoicing about. Most importantly, it treats Mars as a potential human habitat rather than a nesting ground for aliens that will eventually devour minor characters.
The Martian is set in the not-so-distant future, in 2035, when the crew of Ares III is more than halfway through their 31-sol expedition in the red planet. A scientifically impossible but necessary premise in the form of a dust storm causes an antenna to hit the bio monitor of botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Faced with a difficult task of choosing between looking for Watney amidst sea of red sand and saving the lives of her remaining crew, mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) opts for the latter.
Back on Earth, NASA Director Theodore Sanders (Jeff Daniels) relays the message of Watney’s presumed death to the world as a footnote to the good news that the Ares III crew survived the dust storm and are on their way back to Earth.
Meanwhile, still in Mars, Watney wakes up having a critical level of oxygen. After much heaving and grunting, he makes it to the Hab, the now-isolated living quarters of Ares III crew. There, he starts a video diary to keep tabs with his thoughts and actions, and maybe to stop himself from going crazy. He realizes the many ways he could die, and becomes pensive. However, after some introspection, he doubles back and decides that he will “not gonna die here” because Ares IV will arrive in four years. How is that for positive thoughts?
In order not to die in that lonely planet, Watney needs to “science the shit out” of his predicament. It means using his knowledge in subjects most students hate in school, namely botany, chemistry and math. It also involves vacuum-packed human shit to grow hundreds of potatoes.
While Watney uses all the nerd cells in his body, NASA serendipitously discovers that he is still alive. This is where our ingenuity as a race takes the center stage. Watney and the intellectual demi-gods of NASA spew out scientific and pop culture nuggets of wisdom that make any respectable geek weep with joy and gladness. Their plans and conversations involve the Pathfinder probe, hexadecimal system, disco music, astrodynamics, and JRR Tolkien’s The Council of Elrond. The kicker is, Sean Bean who played Boromir in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is Ares III’s mission director Mitch Henderson. Thank goodness, Henderson does not have the same fate as Boromir (or Ned Stark).
The Martian reeks with geekiness, but it is neither boring nor dragging. Damon makes technical (and legal) explanations, like extracting hydrogen from the remaining fuel, sound interesting and enjoyable. His video logs seem natural, like he is just chatting with his buddies in a bar over bottles of beer. He is not oversentimental. He does not wax poetic about his impending demise. He does not utter, “God, why me?” or any permutation thereof. These make Watney loveable, someone the audience can emotionally-invest in to defy the odds and give the middle finger to the universe while holding a duct tape in the other hand.
The Martian is an overly hopeful film about a usually depressing situation. Yes, it is about space and the vastness and danger it poses yet, it is also about the brilliance of the human mind. Even with the presence of the complicated laws that govern the universe, what makes The Martian remarkable is its unpretentiousness. It does not fool the audience into believing that it is more than a stranded man in Mars who uses his brain cells to science the shit out of his problem. By choosing not to feature existential crises, the film and its characters turn out to be normal and fun (relative to the gravity of the situation). The science is not that erroneous either. The song at the end of the movie, “I Will Survive”, is the perfect bookend to Watney’s journey to space. It also shows the kind of humor the people behind the film have.
The Martian is one of the eight Best Picture Nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. 1/8 done.