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The Martian

I dropped the ball on this one. I often criticize Hollywood for not being willing to make genuine, hard science fiction movies anymore, and I begroan the continued bastardization of my beloved Star Trek and the dumbed down action flicks that Hollywood dared to put the "Star Trek" title on. The studios say that science fiction don't make enough money. Apologists say that casual audiences are too dumb and impatient to sit through any kind of slow-developing, cerebral movie. Ironically enough (despite my own frequent cynicism) I think both these apologetics are too cynical and don't give audiences enough credit. I firmly believe that if the studios make a good movie, the audiences will go see it, especially if it's properly marketed.

So when a thoughtful, science fiction movie like The Martian comes out, I try to make a point of spending my money to see it in order to show my support for the continued development of the genre. I made a point of seeing Gravity, despite that movie appearing to be little more than space destruction porn and iMax eye candy. I also made sure that I saw last year's Interstellar. And both of the Planet of the Apes reboots have been surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately, I lost track of the release date of The Martian and missed seeing it on opening weekend (one of Hollywood's biggest metrics of a movie's success). I also wasn't able to see it the week after, or the week after that due to my weekends being consistently busy. It was over a month before I finally put my foot down and said "I'm seeing this movie now! No more delay!". And then I went and saw it twice in that same weekend.

Fortunately, the rest of the country vindicated me by heaping dump trucks full of praise on the movie and putting their butts in the theater seats to keep The Martian at the number 1 spot in the box office for almost the entire month of October (only briefly falling to number 2 for one week behind Goosebumps - really?). It finally took an upteenth sequel to a beloved franchise to topple The Martian when Spectre (which I also saw this weekend) held the top spot for two weeks in a row. The movie itself is earning Oscar buzz, and Matt Damon seems to be the current favorite for "Best Actor". So there you have it, Hollywood: make a good sci-fi movie, and they will come, and they will love it.

The Martian - stranded on Mars
Matt Damon's character is charming and easily has the audience rooting for him against all odds.

And the movie is absolutely fantastic! It's ambitions are closer to Apollo 13 than to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a very believable, down-to-earth, science fiction film, the events of which feel like they could happen tomorrow. Matt Damon's performance is absolutely charming as a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars and presumed dead when his team is forced to evac due to a violent sandstorm. Damon grabs the audience's hearts and his struggles to survive keep us captivated and glued to our seats for the entire length of the movie. We laugh as he "sciences the shit out of Mars" and one-ups Neil Armstrong by declaring himself humanity's first "space pirate". We worry for him as his rations dwindle and his body withers away. And we cry for him when disaster makes his death look like an inevitability. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, except maybe for Jeff Daniels' overly-stoic, no-nonsense Director of NASA; and the exaggeratedly-energetic Donald Glover, boy-genuis astrophysicist.

Visually, the movie is a treat. Ridley Scott has an excellent sense for visual story-telling, and his style is on full display here. The sets are authentic and lived-in, and the Mars landscapes are breathtakingly beautiful and hauntingly barren. Scott knows when to show restraint and how to make even simple actions exciting. There was plenty opportunity to indulge in the disaster-porn of Gravity, but instead, we're treated to tense space-walks and the surprisingly-exciting activity of growing potatoes. The technology depicted all seems like things that NASA could stuff into a rocket tomorrow if we just had the motivation to make such a mission.

Although The Martian presents a very realistic and believable depiction of a manned mission to Mars, it does falter a bit in its science. Mar's atmosphere is too thin to allow for the type of devastating dust storms shown in the film. Its gravity is also much weaker than earth's, so Matt Damon should have probably been skipping around rather than casually walking. I was also a bit disappointed that the film didn't at all address the problem of radiation exposure, which is a severe problem due to Mars' lack of an electromagnetic field. But these sorts of things are to be expected in science fiction movies. Such movies will never be perfect, and sacrifices must almost always be made for the sake of narrative and drama. The effort that was put forward is admirable.

The Martian - dust storm
The dust storm that sets up the whole plot is notoriously exaggerated.

The greatest strength of the film is that The Martian is overflowing with optimism. And not the silly "love transcends time and space" foo-foo nonsense of Interstellar. The Martian channels the spirit of the Apollo missions, and paints the exploration of space as an exhilerating challenge for mankind, rather than a last-ditch effort to save us from ourselves. These astronauts are exploring Mars for the sake of discovery, and their passion for exploration is infectious. Science and math are the heroes of the movie, as the movie celebrates the ingenuity that comes from necessity. It depicts China and the United States putting aside their political differences in order to cooperate to bring home a single astronaut. It even makes fun callbacks to real-life Mars missions. And it makes a manned mission to Mars look both plausible and worthwhile.

The Martian is a fantastic movie, full of life and energy and a passion for exploration and space travel. It's optimism is a refreshing break from the cynical and pessimistic nose dive that science fiction has taken in the past couple decades thanks to a proliferation of "disaster sci-fi" and "science gone amok" movies. The Martian deserves a place alongside the best science fiction movies of all time.

And with the recent discovery of liquid water possibly flowing on the surface of Mars (news that Matt Damon's character sadly missed), perhaps a real-life Ares mission might come sooner rather later.

The Martian - Hermes space craft
I hope that a real-life Ares mission happens in my lifetime.

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