The Martian would be a great engineering recruitment film — if it ever mentioned the word “engineering.” When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is faced with the challenges of surviving alone on Mars for four years, including growing his own own food and figuring out a way to communicate with Earth, he concludes he’ll have to “science the shit out of this.”
But what he’s really doing is engineering: breaking down the big problem of surviving into smaller pieces and applying scientific knowledge and concepts to create technology and solve problems. Yet there is no explanation for how this botanist manages to jerry-rig new technology from scraps on an otherwise barren planet — without ever troubleshooting anything.Before The Martian, I wasn’t aware that engineers also had to fly under the radar.Click To Tweet
For years, Hollywood has been making movies about Jews while pretending that’s not what they’re about. (See Dirty Dancing.) And the industry has been making queer narratives while pretending that they have nothing to do with the gay community — look no further than Golden Girls. But before The Martian, I wasn’t aware that engineers also had to fly under the radar. Not once does Mark mention that he’s got a degree in mechanical engineering — something that was explicit in the book. The film still assumes that knowledge with no evidence that he has it, which had me scratching my head more than once.
How did Mark manage to create a machine to make water, hack assembly code, devise an ASCII-based communication system, and fix a dormant robot? These are difficult feats for someone who specializes in chemical engineering (for building a machine to make water), electrical engineering (for figuring out how to fix the pathfinder circuits), and mechanical engineering (for knowing how to modify his vehicle), especially given that he doesn’t have access to the all-important Wikipedia. With nothing but a botany degree and some NASA training? Fat chance.
Mark’s first attempt to make water ends in disaster. He has to regroup, find the error, and fix the problem. Yet every other challenge he faces seems to be surmounted effortlessly. I get that it would be boring to watch Mark fail, fail, and fail some more, before he finally succeeds. But denying us the chance to see Mark fail and regroup undermines the sheer amount of effort it would take for Mark to survive.THE MARTIAN is packed full of Eureka moments, giving you a dopamine hit every few minutes. Click To Tweet
Much like last year’s The Imitation Game, and its superior space age cousins October Sky and Apollo 13, the greatest thrill of The Martian comes from watching Mark solve problems — even (or especially) when that means blowing himself up. Whereas The Imitation Game offered but one great Eureka! moment, The Martian is packed full of them, giving you a dopamine hit every few minutes. But when there’s little work required to reach each milestone, the accomplishments lose their full dramatic weight. We cheered with the Rocket Boys in October Sky when their rocket finally succeeded, because we’d watched dozens of them crash and burn. But we never even expect Mark fail, because major problems get solved as soon as he identifies them.
As long as you’re willing to buy Mark’s limitless knowledge, the film has few major scientific issues. Most egregiously, Mars’ gravity is depicted as equivalent to Earth’s rather than about one third of Earth’s — Mark should be hopping around even when he’s at his weakest. The storm at the beginning of the film, which caused Mark’s crew to abandon him on Mars and leave in a hurry, wouldn’t even be possible given the thinness of Mars’ atmosphere, a problem even the book’s author admits. The fateful, major decision made by the Head of NASA is so ludicrous on so many levels that it’s hard to credit as anything more than a plot contrivance. And having apparently learned nothing from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mark’s fellow crew member Chris (Sebastian Stan) does numerous space walks without tethering himself to his ship.
Drew Goddard’s script doles out enough information to let us in on the problem solving ourselves, so that we get to feel the same sense of discovery that Mark does onscreen. It’s structured to keep us curious and on the same page as Mark, rather than just passively watching him build and problem solve. Having seen Mark look through his teammates’ belongings that were left behind, we can make the logical leap at about the same time he does: he’s been left with their rations, too.
Yes, Mark sometimes outlines his plan by talking into a camera 127 Hours-style, but the device is used sparingly. Goddard frequently has Mark cracking wise, as much for his own sanity and amusement as ours: he’s alone out there and he needs to stay stable somehow. In one great moment, he describes the plan that a team of very smart NASA scientists came up with that amounts to drilling holes in the ceiling and banging on it.
Although Mark is still largely a conventional hero — white, male, cocky, super-smart — the film places him in a world full of unconventional players. A woman from the military (Jessica Chastain) is the strong and capable leader of the team that went to Mars. Similarly, the satellite specialist in Houston who first spots signs of life on Mars once the team has departed is also a woman (the radiant Mackenzie Davis). And it’s a young black academic (Donald Glover) who figures out the Hail Mary to save Mark. Not to mention that the team leader is the ever cool, intelligent, and charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Leaving aside Ridley Scott’s recent embarrassing misstep with the all-white cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s been a pioneer of putting marginalized groups in front of the camera. People still regularly cite Ellen Ripley from Scott’s Alien as the exemplar of a well-rounded strong female character. Goddard got his start writing for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so writing smart, capable, interesting women — without the personal hysteria that a Sorkin script would require — comes naturally.
But if I may be allowed a quibble, it’s troubling that the women are all white, while the male characters are more racially diverse. And in the odd scene when Goddard needs to explain some key facts to us, it falls to a woman, Kristin Wiig’s NASA public relations guru, to be the ignorant audience surrogate in need of an explanation.
The Martian is shot in 3D, but the effectiveness of this technology for the storytelling is uneven. The shots of Mark wandering Mars are when the 3D is at its most dramatic, driving home the fact that this is a man alone on a large, hostile, and empty planet. Similarly, Scott’s use of 3D back home sometimes brings home just how full of people and resources Earth is. NASA holds its first press conference of the film on the top floor of its headquarters with the speaker standing in front of a glass wall, the building’s vast atrium visible behind him. In contrast, I practically forgot that the film was in 3D during much of what happens in Mark’s Mars habitat or on the Earth. The Martian is not a bold, groundbreaking visual work of art in the vein of Gravity or 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is a good story, and that’s enough.
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