On the red planet, amid arid desert and rolling mountain ranges, six sleekly space-suited astronauts grope their way back to their launch vehicle, fleeing a sudden and vicious wind storm.
Pelted and blinded by sand and metal, one of them is struck by debris and flung off into the darkness. The others, unable to stay any longer, leave him for dead, blasting off for Earth.
Later, the abandoned (yet still living) astronaut is snapped back to consciousness by a screeching alarm: his suit is out of oxygen. He’s been skewered in the stomach by a sheared-off piece of equipment. Picking himself up, he staggers inside the group’s now-deserted habitation module. Digging with pliers inside his belly, he plucks out pieces of buried shrapnel. Stapling his wound, he realizes he is stranded, alone, on Mars.
“Fuck,” he says, not unreasonably.
And so we meet Mark Watney: astronaut, botanist, survivalist and one of the more unlikely heroes of modern page and screen.
Adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian is the story of Watney’s attempt to stay alive long enough to be rescued.
It’s an uncomplicated plot: unlike most sci-fi blockbusters, there are no space monsters, no grand themes of intergalactic destiny, no evil villains. Earth is not in danger; time is not being traveled. The stakes are neither bigger, nor smaller, than a single human life – specifically, the life of Watney, played by Matt Damon with an appealing irreverence.
Watney is a talented problem-solver, yet he’s prone to the occasional overconfidence of a weekend home improvement enthusiast. Sparking a chemical reaction to produce water, Watney blasts himself across the room. Running out of ketchup to leaven the taste of his home-grown, life-sustaining potatoes, he dips them in crushed Vicodin. Asked by NASA for a PR photo, he poses, thumbs up and grinning, as the Fonz. Watney is motivated, it seems, by a refusal to be beaten by the absurd situation in which he finds himself. He’s also tickled by his accrual of self-anointed titles: best botanist on the planet, space pirate, colonial overlord of Mars.
What makes Watney adorable rather than obnoxious is his decency and self-effacement. He seems relatively untroubled by his own predicament, but crushed that his comrades will feel guilty for leaving him behind. He thinks of his parents, and wants them to know that he was on Mars doing something he loved and (as he doesn’t fail to note) was unbelievably good at.
A basic goodness characterizes his crewmates too: from Jessica Chastain’s effortlessly in-charge Commander Lewis to Michael Pena’s hotshot pilot Martinez, who is Watney’s closest friend on the crew.
It is Martinez who sends the first message to Watney once they realize he is still alive. “Sorry we left you behind on Mars,” Martinez texts Watney, “But we just don’t like you.”
The Martian is grounded in present or near-future technologies. Text messages drive the plot. Watney narrates his daily life to webcams in the habitation module, effectively creating his own channel on Martian YouTube. And of course, he has acquired his own hashtag during the promotion of the movie.
Ridley Scott makes some excellent directorial choices. Reprising a technique he deployed in Alien, Scott has his astronauts talk like ordinary human beings, rather than stilted protagonists in a space opera. He effectively conveys the smallness of Watney against the vast desolation of Mars. The Hermes spacecraft is beautiful.
I thought it was a mistake, though, to set the Earth portion of the plot in motion so quickly. The book is dominated by Watney’s first-person narration, driving home his isolation. In the movie, we can see NASA working on a solution before we’ve really understood the extent of Watney’s problems, and, as a result, tension dissipates.
Yet tension is not this movie’s metier; it’s a relentlessly positive tale. Most uplifting was the confidence that ordinary human decency – not existential questioning or threat, not supernatural intervention – could be the driving force in a space epic.
Watney wants to stay alive, and his friends and colleagues want to rescue him. It’s no more complicated than that. So while Watney generally despairs of the disco music his departed colleagues left behind on their laptops, he doesn’t protest when the slightly on-the-nose I Will Survive turns up on the playlist.