The Martian (Review): “The Most Fun Science Lesson You’ve Ever Had”

4/5

In the age of the internet, authors can get their novels read by audiences without needing to gain a lucrative publishing deal. It is perfectly understandable why the majority of the books that eventually cross-over into the mainstream were never sent to publishers; what executive in the right mind would green-light a revamped Twilight erotic fan fiction novel about a woman discovering her “inner goddess”? Yet in the post-Fifty Shades word, that is exactly what executives in both the book and film industries are doing, mining the filthiest corners of online fan fiction to find a sleazy new smash hit- amateur author Anna Todd’s book After, for example, is inspired by her desire to fuck Harry Styles. Naturally, it gained her a six figure publishing deal and is being turned into a movie.

But what does this mean for proper authors? Andy Weir had many of his novels turned down by publishers, leading for him to release The Martian chapter by chapter for free back in 2011. He didn’t imagine it would be a hit, he described it as a “technical book for technical people”, yet it quickly became a bestseller; in a world where it seems erotic novels are the key to success, the idea of a science fiction novel rooted almost entirely in hard-scientific fact (if you ignore the storm on Mars that leads Mark Watney to be stranded there) becoming a hit is enough to restore your faith in the reading habits of the general public. Ridley Scott’s glossy new film adaptation is the most mainstream version of this story that can be possibly told and it is all the better for it- it doesn’t dilute the science, but instead makes it fun and easily understandable for the most scientifically inept audiences, hopefully ensuring a wave of intelligent sci-fi blockbusters will be coming our way.

The Martian pulls off the improbable feat of simplifying its more technical segments without ever “dumbing it down”- instead Cabin in the Woods director Drew Goddard’s screenplay fills it with humour, making it a triumph of the heart as well as the head. So, after being presumed dead after being hit with debris during a storm on Mars that leads his fellow astronauts to leave him behind, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) proceeds to “science the shit” out of his new living condition, finding a way to live on an uninhabitable planet until he can contact NASA and acquire a rescue. Watney is a botanist by trade, with a degree from the University of Chicago and a job at NASA to attest to his intelligence- yet when played with warm humour by Damon, a character who is intelligent enough to beat all the odds is given a winning everyman charm. In-between recording video footage explaining his survival tactics (a clever technique that explains the science to the audience without making it overly apparent as a science lesson) he’s consuming all the entertainment his fellow astronauts left on their abandoned laptops. A recurring joke is the only CD he has is a “best of disco” compilation that he hates- yet The Martian has the single greatest soundtrack of the year. How can any film that plays Bowie’s Starman in its entirety ever be considered awful?

Back on earth, Head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) announces that Watney is dead, shortly before the discovery from satellite footage that he is still alive. Instead of telling Watney’s fellow crew mates (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastien Stan and Askel Hennie) he is still alive, NASA try to develop a plan to rescue him that splits the organisation directly down the middle. Sanders believes it is too much of a PR backfire for the organisation- but this doesn’t stop both NASA mission directors Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean, as Yorkshire as ever) collaborating with different members of the space agency to help develop a plan to keep him alive before he can be rescued and sent home safely. In a bizarre casting decision, the most successful idea comes from the mouth of Donald Glover, acting like he’s just walked off of the set of Community.

The Martian is a survival drama, but one whose happy ending is engrained into its DNA. All viewers will know Mark Watney will make it home before watching and this fact isn’t a spoiler- it is not about what happens rather than how it happens. Although not as good a film as Interstellar (it doesn’t have the same crazy ambition or emotional gut-punch Nolan’s film provided), it will hopefully be more successful in getting young audiences interested in science, something I am all for. After all, I am one of the many scientifically inept audience members who wishes I was far smarter in that department- a film like The Martian will hopefully ensure younger audiences have a new found passion for all things scientific.

The film is a comeback of sorts for Ridley Scott. He has been directing films with diminishing returns for years, but with the fallout from Prometheus, the vitriol towards him intensified, along with the suggestion that he’s a hack director, coasting on two great movies he made three decades earlier. Prometheus is a visually stunning movie, but it has to be said that it is far more enjoyable as a comedy (the dialogue is appalling throughout) than as a prequel to a beloved science fiction classic. The Martian reaffirms that he is a master of science fiction storytelling, even if it isn’t as visually stunning- I saw the film in 3D and many sequences were affected by light-loss, something that wasn’t a problem for Prometheus. In 2D, this will be one of the most visually captivating films of the year, I guarantee it.

The Martian, alongside Interstellar, hopefully signals a brave new future for ambitious, original science fiction blockbusters- balancing the head and the heart in equal measure, with a cracking disco soundtrack to boot, it is one of the most fun films of the year and the best science lesson you can ever wish to have.

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