Moviegoers this week touched down on Mars, got swept up in the planet’s fierce storms, and awoke impaled and stranded on the desolate and yet stunning landscape of reddish dust. Earthling audiences were fine, of course—comfortably munching on popcorn and snacks and guzzling down sodas—while Mark Watney (Matt Damon) suffered starvation, dehydration, and the wrath of space in Director Ridley Scott’s The Martian.
“Fuck you, Mars” the main character summed up perfectly. Four years until Earth can rescue Watney, the main character concluded that he needed to grow food and water on a planet where nothing grows, establish contact with Earth, and ultimately, “science the shit out of this.”
And he did.
Not only was Mark Watney sarcastic, he was also a botanist, mechanical engineer, and astronaut and put any accomplishments in our own lives to shame. Add Mars-grown potatoes using his own waste for fertilizer, burning hydrazine to produce water, and recovering abandoned NASA tech from 1997 to relay messages to Earth, all after being impaled by an antenna.
Again, Watney said it best: “In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
But that’s only half the battle. The story jumped 140 million miles to Earth, where NASA and scientists worldwide—most notably China (see, America? They’re not so bad)—struggled through years of logistics, company procedurals, protocols, and red tape in order to rescue Watney. Except for one 25-minute scene solely grounded on Earth toward the end of the film, the details of the rescue operation do not anchor the story down. All the brainpower of Earth’s inhabitants working together to save one man was remarkable and resonated on a deeper, unifying level.
There’s also Watney’s crew—led by guilt-stricken Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain)—who believed Watney was dead, but for the most part, the attention orbited around the Martian himself.
Matt Damon’s performance was out of this world, literally. Despite the powerful realization that his character mostly talked to himself for four years, Damon surprised with a rather optimistic perspective supported by deadpan wit. Damon fueled this galactic voyage. When he cried, you cried. When the watching world cheered, you cheered. You really felt for Mark Watney right up to the creative, visually stunning, and science-riffic climax. Indeed, the real hero of this film was science.
Yes, science—the sinister subject who conspired with math to traumatize our academic years. Who knew it could save lives? Continuing the trend carried by 2013’s Gravity and 2014’s Interstellar, a cast, by the way, that included Damon and Chastain, there was a scientific basis for the film, but The Martian, based on the popular novel of the same name, also painstakingly simplified explanations for us mere mortals—staplers representing spaceships and NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) reluctantly pretending to be Earth in demonstrations. There’s a charm to these explanations, but some viewers—or maybe just me—just need to nod, pretend to understand, and go with it.
The film also emphasized and validated Mars’ real-life eventual in-habitability through Watney’s scientific feats (growing potatoes, making water, etc.). As cool as living on Mars appeared, problems still arose—hurricane-like winds, explosions, and an airlock breach. Humanity still has a long way go but provided the exact circumstances as Mark Watney, the possibility exists. And no one appears more excited than NASA, which reportedly “loved the adaptation of the screenplay,” according to Ridley Scott.
“They thought it was fun and mostly accurate,” Scott said, according to Yahoo News. “When I showed them the film, 40 guys saw it in Washington from NASA, and one muttered, ‘Maybe this will help us with reprogramming and the refinancing [of the U.S. space program].’ I mean, he was partly joking, but that was very nice.” The movie’s debut comes less than a week after NASA announced that water flows on Mars.
— NASA (@NASA) September 28, 2015
So, maybe it’s time to start buying some real estate on the Red Planet.
In the meantime, until we do colonize Mars, humanity can take one small step forward to the movie theater this weekend to rescue Matt Damon and see The Martian.