The Martian: The Finite Fun of Fiction

The Martian

Matt Damon, the Tea Party’s Enemy No. 1. (image source)

Fiscal conservatives everywhere have long been appalled at the oodles of money we’ve spent rescuing Matt Damon on all his lavish escapadesThe Martian won’t exactly make them any happier. For everyone else, however, this latest installment in the extensive “Saving Matt Damon” franchise thankfully spurns heaviness and banality in favor of a lighter, quirkier take on Damon’s survival struggles. The emotions the movie provokes are fleeting and not entirely genuine. But in the moment, watching Mark Watney fertilize his own dung to plant potatoes turns out to be quite enjoyable.

The Martian stems from a simple but intriguing premise. In the future, NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a member of the six-person crew of the Ares 3, the third manned mission to Mars. One morning, they’re in the middle of their daily research routine – collecting samples, taking measurements, and doing all the other tasks that don’t look good on camera but form the real core of space exploration. All a sudden, a large, life-threatening sandstorm starts moving towards where the crew has set up camp. In the subsequent rush to get out alive, Watney gets blindsided by a flying projectile and thrown away from his fellow crew members. After a brief search, Watney’s captain (Jessica Chastain) gives the order to launch without his body, since the lives of the other crew members remain at risk.

A day later, Watney wakes up half-buried in Martian soil – alive. From there, the rest of the story follows naturally. One of the best parts of this movie is how, with such a simple life-or-death premise, it manages to hold your attention for over two hours. Parts of the movie immerse themselves in heated back-room negotiations and geopolitical tit-for-tats, but Scott more or less stays with the movie’s core: one man’s day-by-day quest to survive in an environment almost designed to destroy him. You realize that nothing that happens to Watney is particularly surprising or mind-blowing. If you were writing a story about a guy trying to survive on Mars, you’d probably think of a fairly similar plot. It’s a testimony to our fascination with stories about human strength and endurance – think the 33 Chilean miners – that Watney’s story still keeps us engaged, and a point in Scott’s favor that he doesn’t ruin it by adding too much fluff.

The movie is well-done. The effects definitely make you think you’re on Mars. The dialogue is unexpectedly zippy, and Matt Damon turns out to be pretty comedic, even if there are one too many jokes about 1970s disco. In spite of all this, however, The Martian doesn’t completely close the deal. It has the opposite problem of that of Gravity and Interstellar, both of which, whether through clumsy dialogue (the former) or ridiculously overstretched story arcs (the latter), came off as a tad unbelievable. The Martian is too believable. You watch how Mark Watney, with an annoyingly irrepressible resilience, gathers enough chutzpah to drive death back from his doorstep day after day after day. You watch as he painstakingly rations his food down to the last bread crumb, devises complicated hexadecimal systems of communication, and braves 50 days of travel in a rover – all just so he can get out of the place alive. When the end comes around, you instinctively find yourself cheering hard.

Then you realize that, no matter how real Watney’s struggles feel, they’re not remotely based on reality. This is all just the product of the fertile mind of one computer geekApollo 13, a film that tells the true story of the Apollo 13 astronauts in crisis in space, wasn’t perfect, but it at least was based on real events. The suffering and trials the characters underwent affected you because you realized that they actually happened. With The Martian, it’s not even clear that Watney could have gotten blown away in the first place. Perhaps I don’t understand the point of science fiction. But Scott, Damon et al. don’t try to make you think the movie is a fantasy. Everything they do is in the name of making everything appear as realistic as possible, and it’s a credit to their skill that they can entrance us for so long. But with a premise that fundamentally doesn’t hold water, the thrill and tension eventually start to feel contrived and even a bit fake. After all, it’s a bit much to root for something that has never happened in the history of humankind.

Still, The Martian certainly isn’t bad. No matter how many times we’ve read those “human interest” stories in the news, stories about one person’s fight against the odds will never stop being enthralling. When the story is also a solid science-fiction adventure, thankfully anything but melodramatic, and refreshingly humorous, the thrill and entertainment only get better. It’s worth the watch, maybe even a keep for die-hard sci-fi buffs. Moreover, thanks to its serious efforts, the next far-flung, no-man’s-land in which Matt Damon gets abandoned has its task cut out for it. After all, you can’t get much worse than an alien planet with a -80 Fahrenheit average temperature and near-zilch oxygen…right?

Fiscal hawks, cross your fingers.

Vital Stats:

The Martian (2015)

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean

Running Time: 143 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Simon Kinberg, Ridley Scott, Aditya Sood, Michael Schaefer, Mark Huffam

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Drew Goddard

Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name.