The Martian is not the type of movie in which I would normally be interested. I feel like a lot of my reviews are prefaced in this manner, with a full disclosure of my hesitant feelings towards a film before seeing it and having my expectations subverted (see my reflections on Inside Out). This is just another reminder that the realm of art calls for an open mind. Art- good art- should always involve an element of surprise. I want to be very careful here in using the word ‘surprise.’ There is an important distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘shock.’ Even if the plot of a movie is entirely predictable, its aesthetic style and exploration of issues and themes can still surprise the viewer and suggest new truths. Similarly, a movie can surprise us without having to rely on shock tactics or shock value.
In this particular case, I was wary (and am still) of the genre of science fiction before walking into the theatre. This is not to say that the movie awakened in me an enduring passion for science fiction, but that art and beauty are capable of transcending the bounds of genre and holding truths for viewers of diverse predilections.
Another fact about The Martian that I should mention is that the movie is an adaptation of a book. Full disclosure again: I have not read said book. It seems I am also developing a reputation for watching movies of which I have not read the literary counterpart (I promise I don’t do this frequently, and I really am working on The Lord of the Rings). With all of this preamble out of the way, I think it’s time I jumped into the movie itself and why it was able to surprise me, not with shocking action or entertainment value, but with the deep resonance of its storyline and main character, Mark Watney.
So what is The Martian about? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it doesn’t depict any actual martians. Instead it follows Mark Watney after he is left behind on Mars in the wake of a massive storm. Although there are numerous scenes in the NASA headquarters, the bulk of the movie revolves around Mark. Without the means to contact anyone on earth and inform them that he is indeed alive, and with a severe scarcity of the resources he needs in order to survive, Mark’s prospects look bleak. To last long enough for a chance of rescue, Mark must figure out how to cooperate with the conditions of Mars, thus becoming a ‘martian’ living in isolation on a planet of his own.
Matt Damon, who plays the astronaut protagonist, really shines in this film. Without his strong performance, the movie would not have near as much success as it does, since it completely relies on the acting abilities of its titular character. Despite the rather dramatic premise and the thin exposed line between life and death, the movie is very funny. (This, I must say, is one of the things that surprised me most). The humour owes much to Damon’s dry delivery and ability to balance a quick wit with the fluctuating emotions of hope and despair.
Yet what surprised me and inspired me most profoundly about this movie was its unwavering commitment to the value of life. Mark Watney is one man. An accident happened and he is stranded from civilization. Without him, it will presumably keep on going (it certainly does when he is assumed dead and his loss is communicated to the media by NASA). What’s more, the movie places absolutely no emphasis on Mark’s family or the ones he has left behind back home. Except for a brief line in which Mark asks another astronaut to tell his parents his work is and has been worthwhile, there is zero mention of his former life or of the people he wishes to see again.
Perhaps this is due to the movie’s focus on Mark’s resourcefulness and clever survival skills, but I also think it has an interesting message about the value of a human being and from whence that value stems. When NASA discovers that Mark is alive, they do everything in their power to bring him home. Considerations about Mark’s life on earth, his relationships or other external factors have no influence on whether his life is considered worth fighting for. This one life is deserving of every effort of preservation, and this is so regardless of who Mark Watney is or what he has done or has said. The value lies in the fact that he is not, after all, a martian, but a human being.
Mark’s resilience too is very powerful, and this resilience is on display over the course of the entire film, as Mark encounters numerous setbacks and tribulations. Looking at the sum total of his struggles, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and I absolutely doubt that I could ever be nearly as calm under pressure as Mark is when disaster (or potential disaster) strikes. However, there is something simple and significant in the way that Mark fights to survive. He does so one step at a time. If he overburdened himself with thoughts and frets of all he would have to do to make it home alive, his will to live and his belief in his own vitality would falter. Instead, by thinking only of the next right thing to do and then the next right thing after that, he is able to accomplish unthinkable feats and to exhibit perseverance and confidence that probably seem unthinkable to most of us, if we imagine ourselves in the same situation.
Finally, Mark’s ability to find humour and happiness even in the midst of such nightmarish circumstances is really an extreme testament to the prevalence of daily beauty. If cause for joy can be present in the remotest and most desolate of places and in the absence of any human company, then it can truly be found anywhere. Perhaps it is even true that this daily beauty is found within ourselves, and so we always have the means of accessing it and are not reliant on external things around us for the experience of joy and of a bright, inextinguishable hope.