For the past few years there’s been this trend of attempting to outdo Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” with varying degrees of success. If “2001” is the finest sci-fi film ever made, then 2013’s “Gravity” is below 2014’s “Interstellar,” which is way below “2001.” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” lands in between.
It is appropriate that “The Martian” was released last Friday during the week NASA confirmed there is proof of water on the surface of Mars. Since the dawn of space exploration, Mars was the next step after the moon. “The Martian” takes place in the near future when the wonder of Mars has reached the same descending level of the moon; once you’ve been there, it’s just not the same anymore.
“The Martian” is not only the name of the film, but the character, as well: Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut who is stranded on Mars after the rest of his crew escape a sandstorm. Literally stranded in a new world, Watney has to put his survival skills to the test and “science the shit out of this.” But the waiting game begins after he makes initial contact with NASA, who sends a manned mission to rescue him. Once that happens, he has to wait four years.
The film itself is a beauty. With the deserts of Jordan standing in as the red planet, Scott shoots the film to look like a sci-fi double feature, without the usual campiness of the genre.
At the same time, the spirit of what Kubrick conveyed in “2001” is still there. The scenes that take place in space reminded me of James Horner’s theme from “Apollo 13,” which I believe is one of the finest sci-fi scores to date.
Unlike last year’s “Interstellar,” which opened the mind to what mankind is capable of, “The Martian” doesn’t take itself, or the science too seriously. Of course, it’s impossible to grow potatoes in a mixture of Martian soil and human waste. Of course, duct tape can’t fix the cracks on highly pressurized helmets, it’s just not the point.
In a way, “The Martian” is barely about Mars. It’s an updated version of the “Castaway” story with Mars standing in as a deserted island. The tradition of “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson” is kept alive in that Watney stands as an example of mankind’s perseverance no matter what the scenario. The “Martian” reminds me of the words of “Community” writer and producer Dan Harmon:
“… humanity, warts and all, is an inherently heroic species that has spent about 99.99 percent of its short lifetime as an underdog. And if you see no billboards telling you …. it’s because there’s little to no profit to be made telling you.”