“The Martian” Review: How We Hope

Rashad W. Lateef
Published : 11 Oct 2015, 10:52 AM
Updated : 11 Oct 2015, 10:52 AM

"The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers but above all, the world needs dreamers who do."

I can't quite remember where the saying comes from but I suppose it doesn't matter long as we truly understand it. And I might have come close this weekend after watching The Martian when Ridley Scott's much anticipated return to deep space opened this Friday at Star Cineplex.

Based upon the rock of Andy Weir's novel of the same name, screenwriter Drew Goddard builds a cathedral where no one touched by it is exempt to its religion. Except this church's religion is science. And the science in this film is driven by hopes and dreams. The Martian is a story told by both dreamers and doers. But more importantly, it is a story that systematically shows us all how dreamers can do.

The Martian is set in the near future during what appears to be a now routine NASA expedition to Mars. Structurally, it is a shipwreck tale. Imagine Robinsoe Crusoe on Mars. Wait no. That already exists.

Well in any case, this film strands a lone astronaut-botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) on the desolate and totally inhospitable plains of the planet Mars when a violent Martian sandstorm knocks out both him and his bio-signal to the rest of his crew. Barraged and blinded by the storm, the crew is forced to abort their expedition and return to Earth, and unable to locate Mark Watney or his vital signs, they presume him dead and leave the planet.

However, Watney survives the storm; discovers his predicament to be a dire one that will almost certainly take his life; spends two days miserating; but then comes around to his stronger senses and sets about saving his own life with a powerful, "I'm not going to die here."

Perhaps I'm making The Martian sound predictable. That's because it is, but this doesn't take away from its effectiveness. In fact, the film leans in on its predictability and never once deliberates whether Mark Watney will die. You know he will survive. The question that is expertly broken down and answered for you in 141 minutes is how. And it is the how that's so fascinating to behold. From the get go, the film works to show how human beings are capable of making and doing incredible, amazing things as much as they are of capable standing in the way of those very same things.

But it seems these days fewer and fewer films choose to focus on the former in favour of a "darker" or more "thrilling" look at humanity, especially in the space genre affair. Case in point, Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity or Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. It's easy to compare The Martian with both those films, but what makes this one so special is its ability to relax within itself.

This refreshingly allows it to be the funniest and warmest space film in years. This is reflected even in the film's glaringly pop soundtrack consisting of surely picked 70's disco and glam rock outfits. A standout sequence makes vivid use of Ziggy Stardust's "Starman" to a truly heartwarming effect rarely felt in this breed of blockbuster.

As I hinted earlier, Drew Goddard treats the science in this film like religion. A religion that instills in Mark Watney every embodiment of the can-do human spirit that eventually saves his life. From using his extensive botanical know-how to farm potatoes from Martian soil, rocket fuel, and poop to single-handedly digging up old real-life NASA projects from the 90's in order to make contact with Earth.

Even selfishly (and logically) deriving really cool history-making titles for himself such as "Fastest Man in Space", or my personal favourite, "Mark Watney: Space Pirate", just so he can keep going a little bit further. Over just one more life threatening obstacle. This way The Martian ends up being an almost step-by-step guide to solving even the heaviest problems one is forced to tackle in a lifetime. This film teaches us how people can never lose hope, or even if we do how desperately it will always return to us. The Martian shows us how we make dreams come true.

Just as the sure-handed visual direction of Ridley Scott is not alone in making this film great, The Martian also makes a statement on how alone Mark Watney is notBack on Earth, Matt Damon's captivating portrayal of Watney is supported by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Director of Mars Missions Venkat Kapoor, who plays the other end of the human preservation instinct with fervour. Jeff Daniels assuredly takes on the opposing force in the form of the always politically inclined Director of NASA Teddy Sanders. Not to mention the murderer's row of talent on board the Hermes, which is the crew and ship that mistakenly abandoned Watney on Mars.

Relatively short as their roles are while their effect remains all the more powerful for it, the Hermes crew is played by Jessica Chastain as the CO, and assisted in no small feat by Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie, and the hilarious Michael Peña (a total showstopper). Upon revelation of their fatal mistake, the crew immediately begins to work towards the express opportunity to save their marooned comrade, even in the face of mutiny by going against the barring political wishes of NASA. In the end, as far as the individual power of the human spirit brings Mark Watney, what eventually saves his life is the confidence these characters place in their cooperative will. This binds them together and allows his crew to safely return to Earth with Watney in tow.

Ridley Scott is an extraordinary filmmaker and one who has always chosen to tell stories as visually as possible. From Alien to Blade Runner, Scott has proven to be a master of sci-fi and making bleak futures look just as spectacular. So we may be inspired to craft our own future as much as we fear what it may become.

After more than a few failed premises such as Prometheus, visually stunning but also utter nonsense, it's great to see Scott work with real characters and sensible story structures again to make something truly special and inspiring. Parallel to Scott's own team's efforts, Mark Watney and his crew's fist-pumping triumphs tell us that only together can we achieve greatness so humanity may trudge forward into the unknown, knowing we are not alone.