In The Martian, Matt Damon plays determined astronaut Mark Watney who, gravely injured and mistaken for dead, is left behind when his crewmates abort their mission on Mars. Alone and with limited resources, Watney is determined to find a way to survive the hostile red planet. Seamless cinematography in stunning Marscapes (from the rusty red dirt to the rocky horizons), a solid supporting cast, and fast-paced writing round out director Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi space film.
Based on the gritty trailer, viewers may have braced themselves for an intense film about the agony of life alone—Castaway in space suits, if you will. But that is not how The Martian unfolds. Watney remains stoically focused on surviving, and never descends into the darker regions of depression and desperation that Castaway explores. “I’m not going to die out here,” he says simply, and he never gives in to despair.
Indeed, if Watney evokes any other character, it is not Castaway’s tragic Chuck Noland or even Interstellar’s stranded and despairing Dr. Mann (also played by Matt Damon), but rather Robinson Crusoe—a resourceful man making the best of a difficult situation and determined to live, because life is worth living.
Unlike other recent space flicks (Interstellar, Gravity), which pit man against space in a brutal setting, piling on one tragic devastation after another, The Martian maintains a refreshing optimism, focused on Watney’s refusal to be beaten by the difficult situation before him. Although he knows his crewmates think him dead and has no way of contacting them, he yet resolves to find creative solutions, despite setbacks and errors, to overcoming the logistics that stand between him and survival. The focus is not on the vast expanse of stars, the emptiness of space, and the unknown between him and home; rather, the focus is on the little things—on the tiny leaflets emerging from the dirt Watney carefully cultivates, and promising hope.
His life is almost evocative of Genesis: a man in a new world, he is not simply battling the elements or trying to defeat space or time, but rather he acts quite literally as a steward of his environment, carefully conserving and crafting his environment so that it not merely opposes him, but serves him.
In fact, Watney’s positive attitude and wry sense of humor in the face of suffering might be the secret to his sanity. While NASA workers worry about him and wonder what he must be going through, knowing he is all alone, he listens to music and jests about his failures and difficulties. His ability to joke, if only to himself, about the desperation of his circumstances prevents the film from becoming an agony too painful to watch, but keeps the tone human and engaging, like Watney himself, even in the midst of trials. After all, “He is a sane man who can have tragedy in his heart and comedy in his head,” as G.K. Chesterton once said.
Unlike Robinson Crusoe, there is little mention of God in the film, though one can argue that an implicit providence seems to be contriving to help Watney find a way home. The most explicit reference occurs when Watney needs fire, but has no flammable materials on hand—except a former crewmate’s personal crucifix. In this life and death situation where the cross becomes in a sense an instrument of his salvation, he looks at the crucifix and remarks: “I’m assuming you’re OK with this.”
The only other reference comes from a NASA worker who, when asked before one of their desperate rescue attempts if he believes in God, affirms he believes in “something.” It’s a half-hearted answer that seems more dismissive than substantial.
This uncertainty and the conflicting interests and opinions of the humans on earth, fumbling for solutions to rescue Watney, contrasts rather starkly with Watney’s own calm approach to the near-impossible task before him of simply staying alive. Perhaps Watney has some sort of faith, or he may be a fatalist; but he certainly has courage. As he tells young astronauts, when everything fails you and you know you will likely die, you can either accept it (and give up), or take the first step to solving the problem in front of you. “That’s it,” he says. “You just begin.”
In fact, science seems somewhat deified in Watney’s determination to “science the sh*t out of” his desperate situation, and there’s a pervading sense throughout that science is his only shot at salvation—from deliberate long-term planning of crops to on-the-fly application of physics to move through space. While the film never degenerates into a mere hymn to the wonders of science, it certainly could explore more fully whether science is what has failed Watney, if it’s his salvation, or if it’s merely a neutral tool he must put to good use. He acknowledges that if the mission takes his life, “I can live with that,” because he is convinced that the Mars exploration is something “bigger” than he is. Is it science, then, that Watney feels is worth dying for? Or living for?
If there is one serious critique, then, to be leveled against Ridley Scott’s The Martian, it may be that it misses a ripe opportunity to explore some deeper themes, as Interstellar or Gravity—or even an older “stranded in space” film, Apollo 13—did. Not only the value and role of science, but self-sacrifice, the intrinsic value of a single human life, what fuels the human will to live—these themes all raise their heads briefly in the tale, but the film never follows any of them long enough to get an answer. And this despite the fact that the main narrative style—a lone character logging his daily thoughts to a video camera—could lend itself uniquely to the sort of introspection necessary for these topics.
Instead, The Martian keeps the story squarely focused on the action—but the film doesn’t suffer terribly for this artistic decision, in the end. The how, if not the why, of Watney’s survival, and the problem-solving of those seeking to rescue him, keep the action fast-paced and intriguing. And the appealing stoic determination of Watney’s fight to survive, and even his sense of humor in the midst of suffering, will keep the audience rooting for him till the end and hoping, whatever motivates him to keep going, that he makes it home.