The Martian is the latest movie in a tradition that looks at space travel with a serious eye. I’m talking about recent favs Gravity and Interstellar. The comparisons to Interstellar are especially pertinent. Aside from the astronaut subject matter, both also feature Matt Damon being stranded on a planet (this time as a good guy), and each highlight Jessica Chastain as one of the featured players. While the corresponding actors link this closer to Interstellar, the human marooned-in-space tale is much more aligned with Gravity.
Matt Damon stars as a proficient botanist left behind on Mars when his squad flees a dangerous storm. You want comedy? You’re in luck, because there’s a lot of it. It’s a tribute to Drew Goddard’s adaptation, that a narrative can still find humor in the the face of very grim circumstances. Are you taking notes Christopher Nolan? This is Director Ridley Scott’s most celebrated film since American Gangster in 2007. It’s also his funniest loosest space epic yet. Alien and Prometheus were downright dour. The hilarity lightens the mood. Gravity was somber. Ditto Interstellar. The Martian, by comparison, is a laugh riot.
The Martian is a much more audience friendly film. Surviving against all odds is the clear through line. This is a feel-good production that promotes the triumph of the human will. But its accessibility goes deeper than that. For one thing, we’ve surrounded Matt Damon with a stellar cast of characters so he’s not required to shoulder the entire narrative alone in the same way that Sandra Bullock needed to with Gravity. Or, if we really want to be accurate, like the modern day Robinson Crusoe of Tom Hanks in Castaway. Granted, that wasn’t about space, but the thematic analogy is particularly apt. In addition to Chastain, Damon is joined by Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie as his Ares 3 crew. They certainly don’t act like brainy scientists. They crack wise like they’re on a sitcom. Actor Michael Peña has elevated this archetype to an art form. Meanwhile Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Sean Bean are part of ground control on earth. Though much more business-like, they have their lighthearted moments too. Donald Glover, you’re wanted on set.
The picture is rooted in science. As in Andy Weir’s novel on which this is based, we have heaps of technical jargon. The words are creatively tossed out like grenades. In a story with a rather straightforward plot, they help create an intellectual mood. Star astronaut Matt Damon talks to himself, and by extension the audience, constantly. He’s fond of explaining what he’s currently doing, and what he’s going to do. He keeps meticulous video logs as well. I suppose these expository conversations are necessary so we can understand what’s going on. It’s just that the spoon-fed information reminds us that we’re watching a movie and not eavesdropping on the way these things would play actually play out organically in real life. The chronicle often shifts back to earth and the drama playing out down there as well. We are privy to the minute details and bureaucratic loopholes that would come into play once NASA discovered their man was still alive.
The Martian is an unabashed crowd pleaser. Once Matt Damon realizes he’s been abandoned by his flight crew, he remains a spirited protagonist. He plows ahead with a plucky abandon determined to make a go of the hand he has been dealt. “I’m going to have to science the sh- – out of this” is his oft repeated quote. He relies on a combination of duct tape and disco. Ok so that’s not all, but the cheesy music ditties give the drama an air of ridiculousness. They even inform the story. From Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” – what the timeworn selections lack in originality, they make up for in listenability. Try not and smile as he transports a radioactive isotope while grooving to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”. I’d be rolling my eyes if it weren’t so gosh darn funny. “Bring Him Home” is the tagline on the poster. That’s the objective and everyone gets involved – from China, who must declassify their own space program, to an aerodynamics geek at NASA who comes up with a solution. The latter, who uses a stapler to dumb down his explanation for his superiors, is amusing for his condescending tone. The whole world is captivated by Mark Watney’s predicament. The Martian is simplistic in plot, but elaborate in experience. Breezy Hollywood hokum makes you feel good to be human. Sunny optimism never felt so cerebral.