The Martian joins the recent spate of hard-ish science fiction movies that aim for a certain amount of realism over the usual space-operatics. Of course, it immediately invites comparisons to Interstellar and Gravity, so let’s get these right out front: this is a far better film than Nolan’s misguided paean to 2001, but it falls well short of Cuarón’s deep meditation on tragedy, loss, and recovery.
The thing that sets The Martian apart from these other films is its focus on the particulars of the science it discusses. Interstellar may have been explicit about the astrophysical theories it drew on, but it can only ever describe their general contours. The Martian, on the other hand, sticks much closer to home, in a recognizably near-future setting. The technologies and concepts are much more down-to-Earth — er, Mars — and so we get a lot more actual science.
Or at least that’s the idea. I had the privilege to watch The Martian with a real-life rocket scientist, who could recognize that a lot of the fine points that were fudged. She’d also read Andy Weir’s novel, which evidently went into a lot more detail with even greater inaccuracies. In a way, by shaving off a lot of this material in his adaptation, Drew Goddard managed to find a kind of balance between showing enough science to carry the hard sci-fi spirit and showing so much that the seams where the whole thing falls apart become more apparent. That said, it still becomes markedly less plausible as the story wears on.
We first meet Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after an astounding, but necessary coincidence: as a massive dust storm forced the Ares III mission to abort operations on the Martian surface, he was struck by debris that managed to short out his transponder and plug his suit enough for him to survive while the rest of his crew thought he was dead and escaped to orbit before joining him.
But, of course, he’s not dead, and he has to figure out how to survive until the next planned mission can rescue him, starting with using the last three weeks’ worth of six astronauts’ vacuum-sealed waste to improve the Martian soil enough for him to grow more food. Then, since the habitat’s transmitter was broken in the storm — because of course it was — he must find a way to contact Earth again to let them know he’s alive. And, having made contact and plans, he must make preparations for his end of them, which should be pretty boring unless something goes wrong.
Which of course it does, exactly on cue. This is not exactly subtle writing here. For the most part it’s fine and interesting stuff, seeing a thumbnail sketch of the science and engineering hackery that might come up on a crewed mission to Mars, with the aforementioned caveats in mind. The big problem comes at around a hundred minutes in, with about forty left to go, when the plausibility takes a decisive hit. There’s a distinct break, and everything after that plays a lot more like a standard sci-fi blockbuster. It feels like at some point Weir had written himself into a corner, and didn’t really know how to end the story. Goddard and director Ridley Scott, of course, are under pressure to deliver an exciting, tense, cinematic ending. Just playing out the plan with “… and it worked!” doesn’t really make for a fun mass-market movie.
But even forgiving that concession to mainstream forces, The Martian has about all the depth of a technical manual. Which, admittedly, is better than the forced injections of human sentiment Interstellar delivers with all the understanding that an actual Martian might bring. Still, even with Goddard shaping and contouring Weir’s story it never really aspires to touch the human condition beyond our remarkable problem-solving skills. Even the obvious emotional note — the Ares III crew’s guilt over leaving Watney behind — falls flat in the brief shreds of screen time they’re allotted.
What’s missing is the deep subtext Cuarón worked into Gravity, though it seems to have flown under many people’s radar. As a story crafted by technicians, The Martian avoids the mistakes Interstellar blundered into by avoiding things they’re just not very good at. But a story with no poetry in its soul can only ever say so much.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.