Do stories of survival, bleak as their subject material may be, always have to be so serious? Over the years, we’ve seen countless iterations of characters stranded or deserted in various circumstances (Gravity and All Is Lost being recent examples), struggling mightily against the formidable forces of nature. As a storyteller, it’s important to convey the sense of desperation felt by the protagonist but does the perspective need to be drab and dour in every case? Ridley Scott’s The Martian has answered that question with a resounding “no” and in doing so, it has single-handedly reinvigorated the survival film genre and also given the science fiction genre a welcome addition of sly humor as well.
We open with astronaut and botonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), as their mission on Mars is put into jeopardy by an intense storm that crops up unexpectedly. During an evacuation attempt, Watney is struck by a satellite antenna and presumed dead as the rest of the team reluctantly flees the planet. He wakes to find that he has been stranded with limited resources left to his disposal and with no way of communicating with NASA, he must wring every bit of scientific knowledge from his mind to endure the hostile living conditions of a foreign planet.
What’s so unique and captivating about this movie is the level of pragmatic optimism and self-aware humor that Watney is able to cull from his dire situation. Since the majority of his dialogue is presented via video journal, we not only have the practical benefits of hearing his scientific process firsthand but there also exists a kind of conversational aspect with the audience that allows for plenty of down-to-earth moments of levity that don’t feel contrived. It’s also effective in making him relatable as well; we’re not just rooting for him because he’s an anonymous man under terrible circumstances but because these things are happening to someone that we’ve grown to care about as a human being.
While there is a playfulness and wit to Watney’s narration of the proceedings, there is also a copious amount of good old-fashioned applied science that he details throughout the film. Challenges and obstacles pop up with increasing frequency during his time on the red planet but each one is met individually with a calculated and well-reasoned response. In some ways, this is the most pure form of problem solving that can be exhibited in a feature film but the tricky part is finding a way to present it in a consistently entertaining fashion while still showing respect for the scientific process.
This is where screenwriter Drew Goddard deserves so much credit in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. The writing is not only superbly clever but also thoroughly engaging in following the ingenuity of its main character and the support system around him. Scott also deserves ample praise for balancing the brainy dialogue with a few well-crafted action sequences and also some moments of well-earned suspense. There’s something liberating about how purely The Martian strives for intelligent entertainment and I hope it serves as a model for more science-based movies to come.