The Martian – The Science of Perspective


With its mix of humour, ingenuity, tension and great performances, The Martian is the most refreshing action (and sci-fi) film in years – and its approach is also a surprising pathway to making viewers think more deeply. 

Space may be the final frontier, but over the past two years cinema-goers have gotten mighty used to it. In 2014 Interstellar came out. It was a space film starring Jessica Chastain as a tortured young woman grieving the loss of someone she thought she might never see again. It also starred Matt Damon as a man who had been stuck on an alien planet for a long time and was going slowly mad (spoiler). So you would be forgiven for doing a double-take upon walking into the cinema to see The Martian, because it stars the same two actors in pretty much identical roles. However – and the however is crucial – on this planet Matt Damon actually has fun. Lots of fun. It almost seems like a hoot, in fact.

But there is also suspense. Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is left stranded on Mars after an aborted mission, with no hope of rescue and very little chance of survival beyond a certain time-frame. If you haven’t read Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, as I hadn’t, you’re completely in the dark, and so the tension gets ratcheted up very quickly. And the tone is often so light and playful that when things do start to go south, it only feels more frightening and immediate.

As said, though, The Martian is also very funny, and it uses its humour to entertain whilst also engaging the viewer and letting them think about many other themes – but in a relaxed manner. Matt Damon’s commanding lead performance helps greatly in creating a more laidback tone, and he has never been stronger.

Damon has a seemingly effortless ability to sound like a scientist who knows his onions, which is very convincing. But more than this, his combination of wit and humanity is very endearing. There is, as a result, much more of a feeling in The Martian that the people in these situations are not detached figures spouting jargon, but normal human beings that you can root for. There’s talk of an Oscar nomination for Damon.

It’s also being talked about as the best Ridley Scott film in years. Freed of pretentiousness and world-building (Prometheus, I’m looking at you), this is just fun. There is a lot of talk in The Martian, but it’s not weighed down by anything. Funnily enough, it’s weightless, in that it has no seriousness attached to it whilst simultaneously being about something very serious. The approach reminds me of Iris Murdoch’s novel Under The Net in that it also uses humour and an apparently laidback tone to distract from the fact that it’s being serious, doing it on the sly, entertaining on an immediate level before making you ponder afterwards.

And that is exactly what I would say about The Martian. On a straightforward, surface level, it’s a rip-roaring adventure story about using resourcefulness and clever thinking to try and get yourself out of a big hole. But on a larger, more interplanetary level, it’s about distance and time, and how the former can truly get you to assess your place in the world, and the universe. From his unique vantage point, Mark Watney sees how small humans are, and how much they need to do to survive.

In Watney’s attempts to come home, we conversely see what it means to truly be at home, or to make another place your home, as he does with Mars. We see the ingenuity required to overcome great odds, and we wonder at the sheer beauty of space. But because the emphasis is more on the enjoyment of these things than the pressing need to survive, it is appreciated that much more.

The film is also a vision (though admittedly an idealistic one) of international relations and cooperation in certain respects, with regard to those on the ground trying to get Watney home. So in one way, it’s a film which you truly wish resembled real life, and it’s a darn shame that it doesn’t. But it’s one with a strong sense of balance too, one where the challenges lie just as much down on earth as they do up yonder.

But in uniting serious endeavour with laidback fun, The Martian is perhaps the most successful space film of recent times too, more so than the heavy-handed Gravity with added Annoying Sandra Bullock, and the epic bogged down by theoretical science that was Interstellar. In Matt Damon’s Mark Watney, Ridley Scott has a charismatic leading man who carries the film, and what’s more, you care about what happens to him. He’s the starman.

There’s a starman waiting in the sky alright, and in The Martian he’s pointing the way to go without even realising. The final frontier may not be space, but the mind. Having the courage to do unorthodox things, challenge convention and have faith when all seems lost is more valuable than you may think. But The Martian is also the sci-fi film which most of all underlines that astronauts should embrace the fact of being in space and enjoy it. Heck, at times Watney appears to be having more fun mooching around on Mars looking for things than when engaged in efforts to get home.

So while some of what the film is doing is not truly new, it’s more of an exciting ride than it’s ever been before, mostly because of Matt Damon, and how he often manages to use human ingenuity to outsmart the universe. Yes, by all means push barriers, be smart and don’t give up, says The Martian – but at the same time don’t forget to have fun while you’re doing it. This space oddity really is one to savour.

Alex Nicholson

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