The Martian is not about a real Martian. It’s about an American stuck on Mars. So don’t go see it if you think you’ll finally get to see what Martians look like. And that’s a shame because if anyone could tell us, it’s Hollywood. They’re really fucking good at science and shit.
The Martian is not about discovery; it’s another tale of bringing back an astronaut who got stranded in space. This time, a crew of astronauts digging around on Mars get caught in a terrible sandstorm and have to abort their mission. One of them (Matt Damon) gets left behind because his crewmates thought he was killed by a windswept satellite dish.
He didn’t die then and he doesn’t die later. If you consider that news a spoiler then you’ve never seen a movie about a stranded American before. America never leaves its men behind!
I’m being a little unkind about the movie’s patriotism. It could have been worse. While the movie makes clear that these are Americans and America has gumption coming out of its ass like anal leakage from an overworked porn star, The Martian doesn’t cram American pride down the gullet as loudly as, say, a Lee Greenwood song blaring from a pickup truck with an NRA sticker on the bumper driven by a dude with one eye, four fingers, a limp. Still, we Americans can once again pump our fists in the air knowing we’re the most loyal, bravest and most resourceful people in the world in fictitious scenarios written and directed by Americans.
Long after his crewmates blast off for home, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) wakes up alone on the Mars surface, with his suit and ribs punctured by space junk. By the way, Mars looks pretty fucking fantastic in this movie. Sort of like the desert in Mad Max, only redder. Our intrepid hero struggles back to the base, patches himself up, gives himself a little pity and then resolves to survive with limited resources on a planet that is at least as inhospitable as Portland is to conservatives.
Watney has to hope the systems that generate air, power the base and keep the subzero Martian atmosphere outside remain operational. He also has to find a way to send a message back to NASA that he’s alive and ask them to please send an Uber 141 million miles to pick him up? That’s a trip that takes months and months, plus the time to build a spacecraft.
As important as air for Watney’s survival is finding enough food to survive. Now, Watney is a botanist, so I assume he was sent to Mars to do plant stuff. Yet, the only plant material in the lab are some potatoes set aside for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner. He has to MacGyver the shit out of the base to make water and grow crops of potatoes using his own poop to supplement his limited rations.
Once aware of Watney’s situation, Earth-bound scientists (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and bureaucrats (led by Jeff Daniels) scramble to find the quickest way to bring their boy home. This includes phalanxes of nerds sitting in what look like the children’s playground at IKEA doing fancy math. From this point, the movie alternates between Watney surviving against all odds and the scientists trying to find the quickest way to retrieve him.
The solution is to send his returning crewmates to get him before they can even go home. This requires some help from a nascent Chinese space program. I haven’t read the book The Martian, so I don’t know whether this is part of that book. In the context of the movie, however, the Chinese feel tacked on and unnecessary, like a prosthetic third arm. The story could be streamlined and better without it, and the scenes feel like they’re there mainly to help sell movie tickets in China.
I was surprised at how good The Martian was for its first hour or so. It's really good. Director Ridley Scott has created a fully-realized world on Mars that is interesting and believable. The movie’s science, while frequently bullshit, is close enough to accurate for a dumbass like me to buy into. Damon is pretty fucking good as the stranded scientist, too. He’s funny, frustrated and plucky enough to get himself out of some scrapes. Those are good qualities for a movie hero, and for a spouse.
In the second hour, though, The Martian’s starts to repeat itself. Not literally, but the movie just keeps piling on the narrow escapes. That makes sense in a movie about a real event and that wants to convey just how bad things got. For example, Apollo 13. In fiction, though, piling it on is just indulgent and tedious, like the moviemakers threw everything they could at the screen. The audience already knows the hero will survive, so delivering the best of the narrow escapes more efficiently would have gotten me to a satisfying ending before I started looking at my watch and wished I hadn’t drunk two quarts of horchata right before the movie.
Also, while the movie is sometimes too specific and detailed about math and science, it also ignores a lot of basic stuff. Mars’ gravity is less than 40% of Earth’s, but the movie maintains earth weights. Also, Mars is as inhospitable to humans as Cut-Rate Liquor on Federal Boulevard is to me taking a dump in its trash bins. The temperature can be as low as 195 below zero at the poles, and the atmosphere is way thin and unbreathable. Yet Watney can stay outside in a pretty small suit for long periods of time without consequence. There is no way his suit could scavenge enough oxygen or keep him warm enough to survive a Martian night. You could argue that my points are nitpicky, but you’d be arguing with a stubborn man who is prone to drunken rages. So, shut up already. Also, it’s not nitpicking when a movie tries so hard to earn its science cred yet ignores the basics.
The Martian also focuses on Watney’s gumption and ingenuity at the expense of something more human. That is, the loneliness. I don’t think a person could stay sane in space for over a year, and yet the movie shows him even-keeled and rational. Hell, one time I locked myself in a supply closet at the Family Dollar overnight, and by morning I had named my toes and eaten my own hair. The movie would have been better if it showed a little more lunacy.
Still, it’s not a bad trip. The Martian is sort of like an uncle you don’t like taking you go-karting. You’ll go and you’ll have a good time, but eventually he’ll take you to the snack bar and start talking shit about your mom, and you’ll wonder how much longer this will go on. But you'd still do it again. Three Fingers.