I’ve always been a bit wary of astronaut movies. It isn’t that I have a fear of outer space in the science fiction sense (I’m as big a trekkie as they come), but when it comes to reality? Well, that usually scares the crap out of me. I blame movies like SpaceCamp and You Only Live Twice for that, as fictitious as they may be. As a kid, I could barely get through Apollo 13 without continually asking my mom if they would be okay, and it took me years to properly appreciate that film. That being said, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy The Martian. I refused to see it in the theater, worried that I might have a panic attack. But after it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won numerous other accolades, I decided I should give it a try. I’m happy to report that this is one of those movies I was completely wrong about.
Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian tells the story of that one time your friends drove off and forgot you were still in the Taco Bell bathroom; okay not exactly, but take that situation and escalate it times a million and set it in outer space. During a manned mission to Mars, a violent dust storm forces the Ares III crew to abandon their research and go back to their orbiting ship. During the evacuation, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and separated from the group. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) attempts to find him before the emergency take off, but is forced to leave him behind. The storm worsens, and they presume him dead since the signal from his suit doesn’t show signs of life. The next sol (Martian solar day), Mark wakes up to find that he’s alone and injured. He’s able to tend to his wound at the Hab (the crew’s base of operations/habitation), but that’s the least of his worries. Aside from the fact that the machines that provide water and oxygen could malfunction, the mission was only supposed to last a certain number of days. As a result, the Hab is a temporary shelter, and there’s only so much food. On top of everything, Mark has no way to contact NASA.
Mark is literally in the worst situation a person could possibly hope to be in. He’s stranded on a planet millions of miles from home, where nothing grows, and where no one will think to look for him because he’s supposed to be dead. The Ares VI mission won’t launch for several years, and even if it were to leave early, it takes nearly ten months to make the journey from Earth to the red planet. Where most people would probably give up, Mark makes the best of his terrible circumstances, approaching each problem one at a time. He counts up the number of rations, and figures out how long food will last. He fixes the Rover so that he can travel for further distances across the planet without stopping to recharge the batteries as often. He puts his botany knowledge to work and begins farming potatoes in the Hab using human waste as fertilizer. He even figures out a way to let NASA know he isn’t dead, using the abandoned Pathfinder probe. Plenty of things continue to go wrong, but Mark perseveres. After several arguments, NASA agrees to a dangerous rescue mission that involves the Ares III crew going back for Mark.
This film is the Apollo 13 of the 21st century. It is a story that borders on tragedy while simultaneously celebrating human ingenuity and determination. While undoubtedly an adventure drama, it is also witty, funny, and unafraid. It brings audiences the best of both worlds, and it isn’t hard to see why it is up for Best Picture. Each spoke in the film’s wheel is perfectly formed; performances by a variety of fantastic actors (including Sean Bean, in a role where he doesn’t die and makes references to The Lord of the Rings) are accompanied by stunning visual effects and breathtaking music by Harry Gregson-Williams. There’s even a good dosage of 70s music. As far as the science of it: NASA advised for the film, to ensure as much accuracy as possible. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the Marvel/Iron Man references (with Sebastian Stan and Michael Peña standing right there…I see what you did, Ridley Scott).
With a real life Mars exploration on the horizon of humanity, this movie is perfectly timed to remind us of the spirit of the pioneer. I’m almost tempted to end with…oh hell, why not?
Until next week,
The Collected Mutineer
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