Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars
The Martian — based on the 2011 book by Andy Weir — comes at an interesting time. It’s been just a few days since news of NASA finding traces of liquid water on Mars has been reported. At the same time, there’s also the ongoing interest in the Mars One mission, where carefully vetted applicants are preparing for a one-way journey to the Red Planet, in the hopes of colonising it. One expects that they will play close attention to The Martian for a few ideas on how to go about doing that.
The Martian begins with an American astronaut Mark Watney (played by a superb Matt Damon, re-treading to a small degree, ground he covered in Interstellar) being left behind on Mars by his teammates after an epic storm forces them to evacuate in their shuttle much earlier than originally planned. Lost in a blizzard of Martian rocks and dust, Watney first gets separated from his team, then a loose antenna rips into his stomach and his bio-monitor, making the others believe that he is dead. So they take off without him, leaving him, when he finally awakens, as the only human being on Mars.
There’s something fascinating about survival dramas — Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away — something to do with man, pampered by the comforts of civilization and surrounded by hundreds of people, suddenly finding himself in isolation, having to get down to the nitty-gritty of sustaining life, whether that involves growing food or finding shelter or protecting himself from the elements. Battling with nature the way our primitive forbearers did. The Martian feeds that fascination — and carries it to a whole other level, because after all, this is not just another island or the wilderness — this is space and a whole other planet! And a deeply inhospitable one at that.
Still, Watney works towards his survival. Ee enumerates the staggering odds he’s up against: It will be four years until NASA sends its next manned mission to Mars, he has food for about 50 days, a little more if he rations it carefully. And the air and water supply in the Hab (the US’ Mars habitat) is not unlimited. He has no way to communicate with NASA, his rover barely works for a couple of hours before it needs to be brought back to the Hab for recharging, so he can’t travel about too much. In short, his chances of survival are slim to nonexistent. Watney’s solution: To grow his own food and create his own water on this planet that repels any attempt to do so, by “Science(ing) the sh**t out of this!” And so Watney begins. In the meantime, NASA finally picks up on his activity through satellite images and try to mount a rescue mission.
But even though questions of science are discussed (in detail that both laypersons and science geeks will enjoy) The Martian is about man’s deeply individual will to survive. Watney, as played by Damon, rarely loses his sense of humour. You may expect to be thrilled or inspired by a gritty survival tale — but what is unexpected is the sheer fun this story is. Watney jokes through his travails, first in the video logs he makes, then with his colleagues, when he does establish communications with them (When he starts his farming on Mars, he quips to the video cam, “Neil Armstrong had nothing on me!”). And through it all, he plays the retro disco music left behind by his teammate — the cheerful, peppy tunes providing a surreal contrast to the bleak Martian landscape. There are also lots of geek/pop culture references — Lord of the Rings, Iron Man — that offer a really enjoyable (and somewhat self-aware?) layer to the story.
Director Ridley Scott’s visuals are either deeply intimate (focused up close on Watney and his doings) or immeasurably vast (the unending red desert stretches of Mars, the infinity of space) and the latter touch something deep and elemental in you. As Watney talks about how everything he does on Mars, he’s the first to, you can’t help but think of a time when someone really could be the first to reach somewhere (on our planet), when continents were discovered or swathes of land cultivated for the first time. In the times that we live in, those “firsts” can now only happen in the realm of space. Space is still the last great frontier. Maybe it has always been the only great frontier — mystifying, endlessly fascinating, dangerous, eternal. In The Martian, through the eyes of Mark Watney, the idea of space, of the possibility of life beyond Earth, becomes even more so.