Imagine Ridley Scott’s predicament when, two months before the release of his sci-fi adventure The Martian, NASA informed him on the down-low that it had discovered water on Mars. In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a U.S. astronaut mistakenly left behind on the red planet; forced to improvise, he manufactures his own water by burning the rocket fuel hydrazine to release hydrogen, which then combines with the oxygen in his little laboratory to create condensation. But now NASA has announced evidence of briny water flowing beneath the surface of Mars and wetting the ground, facts that would have been well known to our futuristic hero. These things happen in the sci-fi game, but it’s an unlucky break for a filmmaker like Scott—since the days of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), he’s put across some truly fantastical conceits by coating his stories with a sheen of hard science.
Other than the water goof, Scott has latched on to a good property for himself with The Martian, which California software engineer Andy Weir parlayed from a webseries into a best-selling novel in 2011 (Drew Goddard wrote the screen adaptation). A self-described “space dork,” Weir wanted his story to be as scientifically accurate as possible, and as John Schwartz explains in a recent New York Times piece, the book (which I haven’t read) epitomizes the “nerd thriller,” a sci-fi subgenre with superbrain heroes working through complex logistical problems. Damon’s character, a botanist named Mark Watney, is exploring the Martian surface with his crewmates when an unexpected storm rolls in, and in the ensuing chaos he’s presumed dead and left behind by the ship’s commander, played by Jessica Chastain. All alone at the abandoned outpost, Watney contrives to treat a serious wound he sustained in the storm, communicate with NASA back on earth using only a still camera, grow his own crops in Martian soil, and keep himself sane over the four years NASA will need to send a rescue mission after him.
The Martian is stunning in its production design, especially its yawning 3-D landscapes of the red planet, and Scott is an old master at making space travel look grungy, industrial, and plausible. Among his favorite gimmicks is the video-monitor frame, which shows characters addressing a low-res camera while, onscreen, numerical monitors tick back and forth with data. Scott attends patiently to the scene in which Watney pulls a metal shaft out of his belly, anesthetizes himself with a high-tech syringe, uses forceps to remove the tip of the shaft, and staples his wound shut with a high-tech suture device. Watney’s quest to communicate with NASA gets the same sort of careful observation: equipped with only a rotating still camera, he centers it inside a circle of signs labeled with ASCII code to create a sort of primitive interplanetary typewriter. Determined to extend his food rations, he creates a little greenhouse with plastic sheeting, plants rows and rows of potatoes, and uses his and his crewmates’ dried shit to make manure (yuck).
Like most movies about space travel, however, The Martian mainly ignores the problem of time. No one knows exactly what will happen when astronauts on the first manned mission to Mars are forced to live together for three years. A recent New Yorker story by Tom Kizzia explained how NASA researchers are studying the transatlantic explorations of the 15th century and the arctic explorations of the 19th century for clues on how humans might survive the stress, confinement, and isolation of long journeys. U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly, now carrying out a one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, is being monitored for changes to his physical and emotional state that might predict what Mars travelers have in store. God only knows what might go through Watney’s head as he waits for days, leading into weeks, months, and years, to be rescued from the face of a strange world. As he remarks in the movie, “I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.” Fear, boredom, and despair would eat you alive.
Interviewed by the Times, Damon wasn’t having any of that. “We don’t need an Oscar-bait kind of scene of some guy wailing and pulling his hair out,” he remembered telling Scott. “I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want to do that.” During long space journeys, small irritations can become magnified to the point of madness, yet The Martian plays this idea for laughs, with a running gag in which Watney rants about the dearth of any music at the outpost other than the commander’s collection of vintage disco (the soundtrack includes “Hot Stuff,” “Rock the Boat,” and, naturally, “I Will Survive”). In fact, being stranded on an alien planet doesn’t seem all that bad: Watney is like a kid on summer vacation, playing around with his science projects, watching reruns of Happy Days on a flat-screen monitor, and recording a goofy video log for the folks back at NASA.
The cinema is uniquely equipped to tell stories of space exploration, but one thing it’s never been able to communicate well is the crush of time; Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein saw to that when he perfected the montage technique and taught filmmakers how to collapse hours, days, or years into mere seconds. Movies are supposed to move, which is why The Martian focuses on a character who’s task oriented, to put it mildly. Watney is typical of people who become astronauts: they tend to be low-key, energetic, problem-solving individuals, and NASA encourages this “operational” mindset as a way for them to cope with the dangers and daunting unknowns of space travel. But if humans really want to colonize Mars, they’ll need to develop as fast as the technology and learn how to spend years traveling through a black void without becoming part of it themselves. v