in Review

The Martian

When astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) wakes up after being impaled and left for dead on Mars, he has two choices: stay there and die or get to work on finding a way survive on the red planet. If he just laid there, he’d quickly run out of oxygen and his struggle would be over. His chances of being able to survive long enough for a rescue – which might not ever come – would be so low that it almost certainly isn’t worth all the pain and effort. You and I know there are those two choices, but to Watney there was only one: live.

It’s been another rough week for America, as more innocent people were killed in horrific tragedies in Oregon and Afghanistan; tragedies that are so frustrating because they are familiar now. Mass shootings and drone strikes have become the norm. It feels like there’s nothing we can do about them anymore, they’re a fact of life in the 21st century. People suck, right? Except they don’t. We live in the most peaceful period in human history. Homicide rates go down in America every year. Wonderful people do amazing, selfless things every day. That just doesn’t make good news.

My optimism for society is embodied by organizations like NASA, which is why I was so delighted to see such a pro-NASA, pro-mankind movie like The Martian. When NASA finds out that Watney survived, there isn’t even a conversation about the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to bring him home. Just like our favorite Martian, the scientists immediately get to work. In a scene I found particularly moving, an engineer is told he could help Watney, but at the cost of his life’s work. Since his project is classified, no one would ever know if he didn’t help. The man notes this before asking for NASA’s phone number in the same breath. Fucking yes.

The cast of The Martian is loaded down with stars, perhaps because who wouldn’t want to be in this year’s big space movie? After Gravity and Interstellar, this is definitely a thing. But this is Matt Damon’s show, and he lives up to the part. Watney is inspiring not only because of his indomitable spirit, but for his empathy and incorrigible sense of humor. At times it seems like he is more concerned with letting the crew know they did the right thing leaving him behind than the fact that he is stranded. It’s what made the book so easy to read and it works on film too.

Since this is one of the rare opportunities I’ve had to have seen a movie in theaters after reading the book, I will indulge in comparing the two. The film is mostly loyal to the text, mostly skipping over some chapters in favor of a more efficient, cinematic narrative. There are a few changes that felt extremely Hollywood to me, but maybe that wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t read the book first so now I’m screwed. Someone else see this and let me know what you thought about the ending.

Anyway, yeah. People, man. We’re cable of some great things. Just remember that the glass is half full. Watney never let himself think he was stranded on a planet that was trying to kill him. Instead, he focused on the fact that he had the skills and knowledge to survive, and billions of dollars of equipment from NASA to help him. You just have to take it one problem at a time.