by: Chris Thompson
Across the Margin’s Chris Thompson makes his case for the best film of the year with Ridley Scott’s The Martian…
In Ridley Scott’s latest space adventure, The Martian, based on the exceptional book of the same name by Andy Weir, we are taken on a manned mission to Mars in the near future. But this isn’t just your ordinary, run of the mill NASA Mars mission. For the film’s lighthearted and jovial opening scene, filled with the happy and casual banter of a team of astronauts going about their daily scientific duties on an alien world, quickly devolves into an epic battle for survival, as a massive dust storm descends upon their fragile base.
What ensues amidst a classic Ridley Scott backdrop of chaos, darkness, and the howling red winds of a penetrating Martian dust storm is an all out race for survival. As the astronauts’ emotions pervade the air and we watch them weigh their wonder and excitement for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore Mars with the very real fact that the dust storm may render inoperable their one spacecraft home. And it is their commanding officer Melissa Lewis’s (played solidly by Jessica Chastain) difficult decision to flee for the safety of their spacecraft and high Mars orbit, cutting their mission time on Mars in half, that sets in motion the dramatic series of events that come to define the remainder of The Martian’s gripping story.
In an inventive stroke of storytelling bad luck, one of the mission’s astronauts, Mark Watney (a botanist and mechanical engineer), played blazingly by Matt Damon, is left behind on the red planet, seriously injured by flying debris as he followed his fellow astronauts out into the storm and the salvation offered by their ship. From a story about a journey to Mars, and the adventures of the mission’s well-trained crew, The Martian takes a complete one-hundred and eighty degree turn, with the film devolving into an all-out dramatic and dead-simple story of survival against incredible odds, with the only hope of rescue for our wounded hero Mark Watney 140 million miles and many, many years away. As the film progresses, The Martian morphs into a story that is as beautifully stunning as it is mentally challenging, presenting the viewer with a space odyssey where science is just as much front and center as is the meticulously rendered beauty of the Martian landscape, with the willingness of humanity’s resolve to endure becoming an oft palpable aura cast about the picture.
The genius and understated beauty that sets The Martian’s storyline apart from other space-based or sci-fi adventure themed movies is its easily digestible plot and the fact that the film tackles the unique challenges faced by an astronaut marooned on a distant planet in a simple, thrilling, and oftentimes humorous way. With the catchphrase of “Bring Him Home” pervading the film, one would think that The Martian’s storyline would be focused more on the labors of the earthforce back home, with NASA’s engineers and scientists crunching their numbers and pounding their desks in frustration, uttering such dramatic lines as “I want the impossible!” or “I don’t care if it doesn’t work, make it work!” as a hangdog world awaits a solution to bring Mark Watley home alive.
But Ridley Scott does an exceptional job of presenting us with another film entirely, an undemanding, recurrently poignant, and more solitary endeavor, marking Damon’s character Watney as the film’s main focus, not his purported “saviors” back on Earth, or his astronaut comrades safely back in space. With the backdrop of the unspoken beauty of the Martian landscape always present, acting as a silently meddling supporting character in Watney’s designs for rescue, and by playing the strengths of Matt Damon as an actor – his grace under pressure, his confidence flecked with humility, and his grit your teeth, set your gaze bravado – against the untamed beauty of his surroundings and the deadliness that lurks just behind it, what Ridley gives us is a stunning film about the strength of the human will. This story is about the limits of the mind’s capacity to cope when faced with isolation and no guarantees of survival. About that strange mixture of strained resources paired with superior intellect that allows one to live out all manner of MacGyver-esque fantasies against the milieu of an alien land. And while “Bring Him Home” succeeds as a catchphrase for the film’s promotion, and for the concerned inhabitants of Earth who become preoccupied with this modern-day Robinson Crusoe saga, a more fitting slogan for the film, and for the beleaguered Mark Watney himself, would be “I’ll Get Myself Home.”
Even though The Martian is an honest and faithful retelling of Andy Weir’s impressive book, right down to the oftimes humorous dialogue and the environments and complex (and often deadly) situations that Watney finds himself in, where The Martian succeeds as a film where the book does not is in its ability to push the right emotional buttons, and portray those sentiments in a sympathetically visual manner. Anyone could imagine themselves in such a hopeless situation, and I’m sure countless moviegoers found themselves asking the same basic questions as Watney did as he struggled to live: What would I do to survive? Could I last as long? Do I have what it takes? But no matter what form these questions take, and where their answers lead us, what they all condense down to asking is how much does a person really trust and believe in themselves? These are cornerstone questions that get at the heart of what it means to be alive. Of what it means to be an individual with free will and an innate desire to persevere and rage against the dying of the light. With perfect pacing in The Martian, Ridley Scott presents us with a character thrust into a situation that no one could have ever imagined, and then forces his character to survive and confront these difficult questions head on, over and over again. And it is thanks to Damon’s superb acting, and his cast of supporting characters (actors Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover, just to name a few) that the audience is ultimately shown the way, given the answers, and taught that even under extreme conditions, with the will of the heart and the strength of the mind, it is possible for anyone to survive against long odds….and maybe even laugh about it along the way.