I know you didn’t like Scott’s Prometheus. Let me tell you over a good, warm cup of recycled urine why you’ll like this one.
The Martian is an upcoming science-fiction thriller by Ridley Scott, starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Dumb & Dumber To’s Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejifor. Will it be any good? Let’s take a closer look at the 2011 novel (grab it from us!) it’s based on, written by one of the programmers of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Andy Weir. Please note: I will bluntly reveal what kind of movie this is and whether or not there are any fantastical elements to it. I’ll be careful not to spoil anything important and just give some insight into the story and tone.
The premise: Botanist and mechanical engineer Mark Watney is one of the first astronauts to reach Mars. When he has an accident during a dust storm that damages his bio-monitor, his crew falsely assumes that he’s dead. Not knowing they’re leaving behind a man, the other astronauts depart for Earth. Alone and without any possibility to contact either the crew or mission control, Watney remembers that four years from now another planned mission will land on Mars. Not ever giving up, he uses all of his skills to survive as long as possible.
Scott’s upcoming movie is pretty much engineering porn. Sorry, I can’t say that Watney finds himself a Martian princess to plant some seeds in, but Weir’s thriller story is pretty much devoid of anything that isn’t hard science. There are no aliens, no spirits, no evil artificial intelligences, no multi-dimensional beings or intergalactic space babies. Matt Damon’s character doesn’t get to fight delusional partners, he doesn’t encounter ghosts, and he has no hallucinations. There is no betrayal, no conspiracy, and there are no other conventional elements of typical thrillers. Every single struggle in the story is a purely technical one and can only be solved by using hard logic, math, engineering, botany, and his basic knowledge of electronics and computer systems. Yeah, depending on your personal taste that sounds either super exciting or unbearably boring. This is really the Anti-Furious 7.
For example: To increase the amount of available food, Watney comes up with a plan to grow his own potatoes. After all, he’s a botanist. It’s just that plants need water and he doesn’t even have enough for himself. At least not for four years. Same for air. What about humidity? Growing stuff in a habitat full of electronics could severely damage them. Where do you sleep when you need all of the place to grow enough potatoes? Where do you even find enough usable earth for plants to grow in? What do you do when a fire breaks out? What if the habitat’s hull is breached by a dust storm during your sleep? These are only a handful of the problems Watney has to face on Mars. Each time one of these problems rears their head, the clock is ticking immediately. If he can’t come up with a solution quickly, he might die. Weir does a helluva mean job coming up with realistic problems for Watney to solve, and it gets even more interesting when he decides to drive around in a rover. In the end, it doesn’t even really matter whether Watney survives long enough to be rescued. All of the entertainment comes from the constant thrill of survival by endlessly solving problems. Well, space travel is super difficult and dangerous as hell, and this story is one of the first to really emphasize on the details.
In the book, about a third of the time is spent on Earth and inside the crew’s returning ship. You find out about the people who’ve prepared him and sent him up there, and you find out about the team that accidentally left him behind. The ground crew is played by Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and Donald Glover. It’s a diverse group of scientists, publicity spokespersons, and deciders, all of them face the fact that accidentally having left a man to die on Mars is an unforgivable PR disaster. However, rescuing people from other planets costs an ungodly amount of money, so naturally, conflicts arise. Meanwhile, astronauts Sebastian Stan, Kata Mara, Jessica Chastain and Aksel Hennie have no clue and mostly mourn their lost friend. Some of them remember their good times with him, others feel guilty about what happened.
What’s not to like? Stripping away every conventional element of space thrillers such as aliens or direct human conflict might make The Martian a little too dry for some. There’s no twist, no hidden alien menace, and no exciting reveal like “he was dead the whole time and now he’s in some kind of purgatory”. And Watney isn’t very philosophical about stuff, either. He doesn’t ponder existence, and don’t even expect flashbacks to his childhood or other schmaltzy stuff like that. You should really be interested in watching an engineer do lots of engineering, first and foremost. The Martian is a love letter to all the hard work of real astronauts, but then there’s a reason why most people aren’t following real space travel like they follow the Fast & Furious franchise. It’s not that exciting on a superficial level.
But is a good, cinematic story? Yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s Ridley Scott. If there’s one thing we can all be sure about than it’s the certainty that Scott will make a gorgeous experience out of it. But a fulfilling one? In the end it might just be Cast Away In Space – minus Wilson the charismatic volleyball – but survival on Mars makes for a completely exciting new take on that old Robinson Crusoe idea. Weir creates an amazing chain of struggles that will easily have us on the edge of our seats for most of the runtime. Watney himself may be a nerdy scientist, but he’s never a bore. He has a great sense of humor and whatever we don’t find out about him from himself we get told by the others who encountered him. So, it won’t just be Matt Damon quietly walking through a desert for 150 minutes. It won’t be Gerry all over again.
I’ll say this: If you’re into space travel, if you loved serious documentaries like In the Shadow of the Moon and Hubble 3D, if you hate, hate, hate movies like Armageddon and Mission To Mars and found even both Interstellar and Gravity to be too showy and too fantastical at times, this will be a groundbreaking masterpiece for you. It’s a movie especially made for people lamenting over things not ever being realistic enough. For others, it’s a really thrilling engineer story set in an amazing location. And maybe, this highly intelligent astronaut behaving reasonable and logical comes as an apology for some of the legendarily stupid behavior of the characters in Prometheus.
The film is scheduled for release on November 25, 2015.
For another preview of a novel adaptation, take a look my article for the upcoming DiCaprio / Inarritu western The Revenant.
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