There has been somewhat of an insurgence of so-called ‘realistic sci-fi’ movies of late. The phenomenon is not at all a new one (2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the first, came out in 1968) but it is popular, and growing. The most recent successes have been the Academy Award winning Gravity (2013) and the cheesy and barely realistic Interstellar (2014) (I will vent my frustrations in a later article). Now, we have The Martian (2015) attempting to be this year’s ‘realistic sci-fi’ blockbuster. So, does it succeed?
The Martian begins with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut abandoned on Mars after a storm destroys most of the Mars colony already set up and the rest of Watney’s team leave him to escape back to Earth, assuming him dead. Watney, however, survives. He begins by doing the very gross task of growing potatoes in the leftover colony using his team’s old faeces (faeces is scientist for turd) as a fertilizer. Very gross. Meanwhile, he is trying to establish contact with NASA back on earth while being forced to endure the horrors of 70s era disco music playing ad nauseam. Times could be more groovy for our little spaceman.
Back at home, NASA soon discovers that Watney is still alive, and decides to get him back using all the resources they have available to them. The following portion of the movie is a mixture of a media circus surrounding the events, NASA attempting to communicate with both Watney and the rest of his team, and various teams around the earth planning how to rescue Watney. These scenes are intriguing, filled with technobabble and, above all, funny writing.
One of the most surprising aspects of The Martian is just how funny the script is. This isn’t that surprising, considering that the cast includes Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover and Jeff Daniels. The writing is styled so that the quips aren’t necessarily those that you would find in a standard comedy, but rather those that would be said by that funny friend of yours who always makes you smile but is secretly dying inside from crippling depression and social anxiety. But I digress.
The acting is predictably good. All of these actors are award winning (Matt Damon won an Academy Award when he was 21! Dude could barely drink by the time he was an Oscar winner). While the acting itself won’t exactly win any Oscars, it is certainly better than most summer blockbusters.
Before we get on to the best aspect, we have to talk about The Martian’s worst. While I may have praised the writing for its comedic style, it falters in terms of character development. One glaring example is at the climax, when two characters who have had almost no previous interactions with each other whatsoever suddenly become involved romantically. The moment is jarring, out of the blue and completely unnecessary. I could also critique the character development of Watney himself, as, when he is first stranded, he seems awfully accepting of the fact that he is most certainly going to die a slow, painful death via some sort of attrition.
Finally, I am also going to have to fault the movie’s ‘scientific accuracy’. Like Interstellar before it, The Martian takes itself very seriously in regards to its realism, despite glaring scientific errors. For example, when Watney’s team leaves him, they are said to have been on Mars for over 20 sols (A sol being a day on Mars, 24 hours and 40 minutes). NASA also states that a mission to Mars can only be launched once every 2 years, as that is when Earth and Mars are at their closest point, and the trip to the red planet will take approximately 6 months. That means that Watney’s team won’t be able to reach Earth, as odds are they’re probably on the other side of the Sun at that point. Still, this isn’t nearly as bad as claiming that you can time travel using the power of love (Interstellar), but it is still a glaring plot hole in a movie that prides itself with accuracy.
Finally, direction. Sir Ridley Scott is, in all modesty, a genius. This is the man who directed the sci-fi classic Alien (1976), arthouse smash Bladerunner (1982), the feminist masterpiece Thelma & Louise (1991), the Roman meme generator Gladiator (2000) and the beautiful follow-up to Alien, Prometheus (2012). Therefore we have to talk about his direction in The Martian. It is, in all objectivity, more beautiful than handsome Squidward. Scott based his shots of Mars on photographs taken by the various Mars Rovers. These are the only photos we have of Mars, meaning a movie which looks like them, to us, looks like the Red Planet itself. Scott somehow manages to make you feel at home even when you’re on an alien world.
While The Martian may stumble on its story, it’s competent acting, funny quips and beautiful direction bring it up to the standards of other sci-fi greats. It may not be Oscar worthy, but it is miles better than any other summer blockbuster one might come across.
The Martian gets a 6/7