For all its pretensions to hard sci-fi, it’s The Martian’s human story that triumphs, for good and for ill, says MacDara Conroy
It’s a great PR move, Nasa announcing they’ve finally found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars, just as Ridley Scott’s film of Andy Weir’s sci-fi bestseller The Martian is about to land in cinemas. It certainly distracts from star Matt Damon’s facepalm-worthy interview comments about gay actors in Hollywood (check your privilege, dude). Scott himself has grumbled about the discovery, claiming Nasa told him ages ago but he’d no time to adapt the film to maintain its supposed ‘hard sci-fi’ cred. But really, it far from undermines The Martian’s verisimilitude, because it’s not really hard sci-fi at its core.
What it is, is a near-future desert-island fable – a ‘Robinsonade’, if you will – concerning Damon’s titular spaceman, one of the first party of astronauts (that also includes Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) to walk the Red Planet, who’s left behind when a severe dust storm forces an emergency evacuation. Aware that help is many years away if it’s coming at all, Damon’s Mark Watney sets about figuring out how to survive as long as possible using only the equipment and rations provided for the six-person mission. Luckily he’s the botanist, so first thoughts turn to how to convert the crew’s meagre supply of food that hasn’t been dehydrated into a renewable crop on a planet where nothing grows.
If that sounds like watching paint dry, it’s actually the most engrossing part of the film, as the affable Damon records what’s basically a vlog of his efforts to turn the crew’s habitat into a greenhouse, or the short-range rover into a long-distance camper van. Scott redeems himself here after his fatally flawed space epic Prometheus: there’s no great mystery or higher truth, just a man left to fend for himself. And his plight is something the audience can really get behind.
Meanwhile, the story frequently cuts back to earth, as Nasa chief Jeff Daniels and his associates (Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor) argue over the rights and wrongs of what to say and who to tell and how to respond to the situation as it unfolds, while Watney’s crewmates continue on their return trajectory oblivious to events happening on either world. Shifting the story to their concerns is somewhat of a cheat, breaking the thread of isolation that creeps subtly beneath Damon’s determined demeanour. Going there would be keeping it real; the psychological stress of that kind of alone-ness is one of the big reasons why mounting such a long-distance space mission would be so difficult even if we had a rocket ready to launch today. But it’s a feeling that dissipates all together when the three story strands entwine.
And as the third act approaches, that’s when things really start to go south. A young astrophysicist (Donald Glover, who’s not all that young anymore) has an epiphany that could change Watney’s fate, but while anyone even half paying attention could figure out his plan purely from the ‘Aha!’ expression in his eyes, the film teases the completely unsurprising reveal for far too long, which is either insulting or contemptuous depending on your level of cynicism. Rather than “science the shit out of it”, from that point forward The Martian jettisons the practicalities that make Watney’s predicament so interesting as it morphs into a bog-standard rescue adventure. One with obvious shades of Gravity and the like, but a rescue adventure nonetheless.
For all its pretensions to hard sci-fi, it’s The Martian’s human story that triumphs, for good and for ill. The marriage of science and humanity in its first half, just Watney and his problem-solving, makes for a winning combination. But Scott seems to have decided that the end was a one-or-the-other proposition, eschewing answering the harder questions to the film’s definite detriment. Because as readers of science writer Mary Roach’s excellent Packing For Mars will know, ‘life in the void’ requires a different set of behaviour, a different kind of morality. It’s utilitarianism in practice, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. Check your sentimentality at the door. For if there were ever a real Mark Watney, the truth is we wouldn’t bring him home. We’d have to cut him loose. Now that’s hard sci-fi.
The Martian opens nationwide in 2D and 3D on Wednesday September 30th