By Paul Sawchuk
Survival stories often follow a specific formula. Protagonist is alone in a barren wasteland miles away from home with no way to return and only their wits about them. Through struggle they overcome these overwhelming odds and survive. Importantly, there is often a heroic scene where they cry and wildly thank God for their miracle of survival.
The Martian largely follows that formula. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is accidentally marooned on Mars after a storm forces the remainder of his crew to return to Earth. Thought to be dead, Mark surprises everyone with his survival and, following the formula, begins making steps to return via rescue from either the next manned mission to Mars, approximately four years down the pipeline, or the return of his crew to pick him up.
Where The Martian differs is in how Mark survives the whole ordeal. He uses his wits, much like Tom Hanks’ protagonist in Cast Away or those in Gilligan’s Island, except that Mark is much more intelligent. He’s not only an astronaut, with years of training for space travel and use of specialty equipment under his belt, but he’s also a botanist. The film for some reason chooses not to mention that he is an engineer, which adds to his impressive brain power. Mark’s considerable problem solving abilities and knowledge make his survival one of knowledge, intelligence and ability, not miracles.
Despite my description above, this is not some sort of atheist denunciation of God co-written by Richard Dawkins. Though there is a scene where Watney carves up a wooden cross to aid in a chemical composition of water (via burning) to grow potatoes on Mars which, sure, could suggest an atheist lean, The Martian is the furthest thing from a cynical thing.
It’s a celebration of the potential of the human mind and promotes intellectualism. “I’m going to science the shit out of this” isn’t just a well written, but simple line of dialogue, it’s a call to action and celebration of our feats in the face of grand scale problems. The Martian gains it’s tension and action, it’s entire momentum, from watching smart people solve problems when people could die. The only villain, the only risk for failure, is miscalculation, something we’re all prone to as human beings. There is no evil organization, bad government or lurkers (definitely no zombies on this Mars). There is pragmaticism – it either works or it doesn’t.
Matt Damon is Oscar worthy as a man who decides that he is not going to die on Mars, he is going to do something. He channels the excitement of working through a problem. There is no doubt, even though there likely should be, that his plans will work. Damon shows glee and excitement at the thought of even trying to do something, because doing nothing is failure; doing something, anything, can get him off that rock.
Everything from the performances to Ridley Scott’s direction (his use of scale and practical effects make for a beautifully daunting Mars landscape) and Harry Gregson-Williams’ score echoes that scope without going into any macabre, dark directions.
The Martian, despite its potential to turn into a disaster epic keeps its tone dial turned to wonder and optimism. Mark is a fun character to be around, even when he’s alone so often and he never turns into complete despair all because he is confident in his abilities and in the end, The Martian is a film that inspires in the face off odds, not despairs. It’s the best quality “stay in school” message we could give people, further promoting sciences as something to be proud of. Nerds everywhere, rejoice!