Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars. He has to survive for more than a year while NASA devices a rescue plan, and he needs all his ingenuity to do so.
Is there a new subgenre of science fiction developing in Hollywood? Maybe. I see a trend and I’d like to call it Near Future NASA Adventures (NFNA). Recurring elements of this subgenre are (i) science talk that is realistic or close to realism, (ii) production design that looks believably near-future, that makes you think: “why haven’t we built this yet?”, and (iii) storytelling that focuses on personal survival against the elements, preferably with a small cast.
Spiritual ancestors of this genre would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Apollo 13 (1995), but the genre took a flight in the past few years and the recent pedigree is excellent; a list of films both critically acclaimed and embraced by the public: Gravity (2013), Interstellar (2014) and now The Martian (2015). Simple titles for movies with a simple focus. I hope it reflects a desire of people to get out there again and explore space. Hollywood is showing humanity doing amazing things in ships and space stations that look just believable enough to evoke the feeling that we could actually do these things.
The Martian (2015) leans heavily on the book by Andy Weir, who really deserves a lot of the credit. The comedic tone and lots of the dialogue and drama have been lifted directly from it to the screen. In the hands of Ridley Scott, who was apparently sharp enough to know exactly what to do with it, we got a marvelous movie. It shows that if you give Scott a good screenplay, he knows exactly what to do, but if you don’t, you get a movie that is still visually stunning but internally confusing (Prometheus, 2012).
The Martian (2015) is a celebration of scientific knowledge, but that doesn’t make it dry. Both Weir and Scott realize that scientific exploration is in the end a human endeavor and involves human emotions, and sometimes, lives rest on that knowledge. It’s how scientific knowledge is granted a greater meaning than pure facts. Suitably, the movie is about a personal struggle of the uber-stable Mark Watney. Credit must also go to Matt Damon, who makes us all take part in his adventure. His quips and approachable nature make him sympathetic, and at the rare moments that he just can’t take it anymore, we feel with him.
The light comedic tone worked very well for this film, which would otherwise have been very ponderous and dragging. It doesn’t take away from the melodramatic moments, although I can’t really believe that the whole world would be following the events on Times Square. The landscapes of Mars are visually stunning. The supporting cast is also great, with a good strong role for Jessica Chastain as the woman in charge who is faced with difficult decisions and Chiwetel Ejiofor at NASA. The movie is quite long, more than 2 hours, but doesn’t feel that way at all.
It doesn’t have any glaring flaws and is simply an entertaining movie that pulls you in from the start. I also think that it isn’t that much more than simply entertaining. There are no scenes that really stand out to me, and the emotional impact of the movie could be higher. Watney’s joking nature pulled you along, but it also flattened the emotional involvement a bit. Questions remain, such as: what about his family? It is mentioned that he has a family, but he behaves like a bachelor and doesn’t really seem to miss anyone. This shifts the movie from an Interstellar-like gravity to a “boy doing science” setup. Still, I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone.