The Martian Is The Inspirational Science Fable We Need

martian-gallery5-gallery-imageWhen I was a kid, one of my absolute favorite movies was Apollo 13. Besides being thrilling and fun, it was a great celebration of America’s space program, something that I was absurdly interested in at the time. One of the things that struck me back then was a scene where, to prepare the LEM guidance computer, Jim Lovell has to do complex math for the telemetry. I remember being surprised that something as cool as being an astronaut would require that boring stuff from school, unfortunately missing out on the potential inspiration that realization could have provided. Thankfully that is unlikely to happen to any youngster that watches The Martian, a film that takes all of the things that made Apollo 13 so great- the thrilling set pieces, the character-based humor, the ingenious problem-solving and the inspiring collaboration- and cranks them all up to well beyond 13 on the dial, resulting in a very fun film that also argues some important and inspiring things about humanity’s potential.

A huge part of The Martian‘s success is the smart and nimble script from Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir. There are so many elements that have to be balanced throughout the film: time on Mars vs time on Earth, humor vs exposition, emotion vs tension; all work in perfect harmony to keep things fun without being dumb or impersonal. The script is, in many ways, a grand example of having your cake and eating it too. We often get scientific exposition, pop culture humor and emotional depth all at the same time without any of it feeling tacked on to the rest. It is a difficult task made to look easy by Goddard and Weir, and their collective efforts result in a film that is made to enlighten and entertain in equal measure, and does both with ease.

While I’m loathe to give Ridley Scott much credit for The Martian‘s success, given his very VERY inconsistent track record, it has to be said that his usual technical craft is a great boon to the film. Scott captures tons of great, understated images to support Goddard’s script. He depicts Mars as a singularly harsh and alien landscape of intimidating emptiness, without ever making it less than beautiful. Scott also continues to display an uncanny ability to make space-age hardware look cool, something with which fans of Alien and Prometheus are already familiar. There is something effortlessly alluring in the way Scott shoots spacesuits that defies explanation but is more than welcome here. And in the few action-y set pieces scattered throughout the film (particularly the intense finale), Scott remains in complete control of his images and the relative distance between ass and seat edge.

Of course, all the quippy dialogue and beautiful imagery mean nothing if there aren’t characters to anchor it all. Thankfully Goddard’s script and Scott’s direction are built from the ground up to support and explore the wonderful cast of characters from Weir’s novel before anything else. Front and center in the film is of course Mark Watney (Matt Damon), stranded astronaut and all-around cool dude. Watney is a very fun and relatable character, often responding to everything with some sort of snark (without ever being TOO clever) and never afraid to drop an F-bomb when the situation demands it. And this sort of relatable humanity also extends to the extensive supporting cast. Be they military veterans, scientists, engineers or administrators, every character in the film possesses a level of humor and emotion that allows us to connect with all of them, even briefly. In Watney and the others, we are given a strong emotional grounding throughout this epic tale, allowing us to fully appreciate the hardships and triumphs on a personal level.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

But while all of these characters are developed into relatable human beings, they are defined first and foremost by their scientific knowledge and ability. This is where The Martian becomes an aspirational film, as it shows these relatable, grounded people capable of doing tremendous things and overcoming impossible obstacles because they are good at math and know how chemistry and physics work. While it can’t be doubted that Watney and his colleagues are experts, great pains are taken to make sure that their knowledge is made accessible to the layman. Most of the exposition is delivered through Watney’s monologues to his video diary, during which he is written like a man who thinks out loud to focus his thoughts while also conveying the tangibility of the scientific principles in question. This is the Trojan horse of The Martian: it is in no small part a great dramatization of science itself, making the most heady concepts accessible to everyone. I have no doubt middle school science teachers will be structuring curriculums around this movie in no time, to the benefit of students everywhere.

But the awesomeness of science is not the only aspirational quality present in The Martian, as the film is also an ode to human endeavor and collaboration, a reminder that our species is capable of great action when unified by greater purpose. Throughout the story, we see this huge assemblage of people collaborating with and challenging each other to come up with the best possible way to get Watney back home safely. While there are certainly disagreements and outside pressures and one or two brash actions, there is still a sense of camaraderie and support between every contributor. The Martian is a film where interpersonal conflict is kept to a minimum and the greatest source of strife is bad luck and circumstances. Some might consider this to be boring or anticlimactic but I think it is a great demonstration of how humanity can work together to conquer the unknown and impossible, and what could be more dramatic than that?

At times it seems like we are at a cultural crossroads when it comes to science. There are increasingly-intransigent people unwilling to accept scientific fact, and there are others that just don’t care about scientific fact if it might get in the way of their profit margins. This sort of political and cultural opposition stands in the way of our potential as a species, and this is what The Martian is ultimately trying to confront. In the future the film depicts, humanity is achieving great things and overcoming impossible obstacles, and as important as science and collaboration are to these achievements the most important ingredient is THE WILL to make those achievements happen. This is the first lesson to take away from The Martian: humanity will not find its brighter future if we aren’t willing to fight for it. But if enough of us heed The Martian’s example, we may yet see the inspiring future it shows us, and how awesome would THAT be?


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