The Martian

October 2, 2015
Matt Damon in 'The Martian' (2015)
Matt Damon in 'The Martian' (2015)

In 1964 Paramount released a movie called Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which may be viewed on YouTube. It tells the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars who must learn to survive in a hostile environment. Sound familiar? This is roughly the plot of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on a best-selling novel by science boffin, Andy Weir.

The half-century that separates these two films has seen a revolution in the way science fiction has been brought to the screen, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and reaching new heights of cosmic complexity in features such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), and Scott’s own Prometheus (2012).

The Martian takes us back to grass-roots plausibility, so long as you’re prepared to believe the space program can be run by a group of young, ethnically diverse Hollywood actors. If this film has a drawback, it’s an exaggerated inclusiveness that verges on the politically correct. Its great strengths are a sense of humour, and a concentration on scientific fact that allows us to imagine it could all really be happening.

In Robinson Crusoe on Mars there are menacing aliens, a monkey, even a space native called Friday. Our hero takes oxygen pills that allow him to breathe Mars’s atmosphere. The Martian includes no such B-movie props. Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is completely alone on the red planet, with oxygen, food and water at a premium. The film is tense, but could never be described as a thriller. It’s more an exercise in sustained problem solving, as Watney deals with basic issues of survival, and negotiates one crisis after another.

The story is simple: astronaut Watney gets left on Mars when his fellow crew members believe he has been killed in a fierce storm. After recovering from his injuries he sets about making a life for himself until the next Mars mission arrives in four years time. Watney is a botanist and an engineer, who works out that he can grow potatoes inside his living quarters – a large, hi-tech, inflatable tent, otherwise known as the Hab. He has to make water from a chemical reaction, and fertilise the crop with his own excrement. When he announces: “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he’s not kidding.

He also devises a way to communicate wih NASA, who have already realised he is alive, due to their satellite monitoring of the site. The story moves between three planes: Watney on Mars; the scientists, technicians and administrators at Mission Control; and the spaceship carrying his colleagues back to earth. In the background we watch how Watney’s story becomes the world’s biggest media sensation, with millions of people following his every move.

Scott and scriptwriter, Drew Goddard, have stayed faithful to the basic structure of Andy Weir’s novel while eliminating a few catastrophes and feats of ingenuity. In the book one rides a seismic wave of hope and despair, but the same content would have felt too protracted in a movie. The journal kept by Weir’s astronaut is turned into a video log in the film.

The crucial part of the story is Watney’s irreverent, never-say-die personality. Although his predicament seems hopeless, he refuses to give up. His only distraction is the audio-visual material that other crew members left in the Hab, which includes numerous 1970s TV shows, such as Happy Days; and a stash of disco music, courtesy of Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis.

I was worried last week that a seventies revival was underway, but now I’m convinced of it. To be stuck on Mars with only the Fonze for company, and an endless supply of Boogie Fever, would be most people’s idea of a fate worse than death. It does, however, allow Scott to have a lot of fun with the soundtrack. One has to wait for I Will Survive, but it makes its inevitable appearance.

Although the cast is packed with A-listers and would-be stars, The Martian is Matt Damon’s film. He is the the only game in town – cracking jokes, talking through his problems, explaining the science in simple language. Through the videolog he seems to be addressing us directly, which creates an unusually intimate relationship with the viewer.

It’s a rare pleasure to see a science fiction film in which there are no CGI-created monsters, no ray gun duels or martial arts contests. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and perhaps Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) showed that one can create real drama in space without cartoonish junk. We’ll get that from the next installment of the Star Wars franchise.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Martian is that it’s a positive story from start to finish. Watney’s vigil on Mars could have been painted in tragic colours but he never succumbs. His resilience inspires his would-be rescuers to greater efforts, and captures the imagination of people from every country. Watney’s ordeal has the utopian side-effect of getting nations to work together across ideological boundaries. It’s a feel-good tale that suggests how science unshackled by politics has the capacity to improve a world in which people are united in their common humanity. The science feels incredibly real, but the politics is sheer fantasy.

The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Drew Goddard, novel by Andy Weir
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie David
USA, rated M, 141 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 3rd October, 2015.