Putting The Science Back In Science Fiction

The story of how the novel “The Martian” became a bestseller is almost as fantastic as its plot. Author Andy Weir wrote the book over the course of two years, meticulously researching the scientific aspects of the story to make it as accurate as possible. When he finished the manuscript in 2011, he was rebuffed by literary agents – not an uncommon story for a debut author – so he published the book in serial form on his website for free. People asked him for a Kindle version, which he prepared and priced at 99 cents, the cheapest price possible. It soon sold more copies than were downloaded for free and climbed to the top of the Amazon bestseller charts. That got the attention of publishers, and Weir signed a six-figure deal with Crown Publishing. 20th Century Fox optioned the film rights and assigned Drew Goddard to write and direct the film.

Goddard’s first writing credits were on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” during its final season, including working on one of the series best episodes ever, Conversations with Dead People. Goddard then worked on “Angel,” “Lost,” and “Alias” on the small screen, and wrote the films Cloverfield, World War Z, and Cabin In The Woods. He also directed the last movie, with Joss Whedon co-writing and producing. Goddard likely would have done a good job directing The Martian, but then another director expressed a desire to do the film: Ridley Scott. Having made Alien and Blade Runner, Scott is legendary in sci-fi circles. Goddard gave up the director’s chair, but he crafted a sharp, witty script that also communicates the science of the story in a thrilling way. Scott for his part has created a third gem of a sci-fi film.

The plot is Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13. Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the third manned mission to Mars. A huge storm forces the crew to abort the mission early, but as they make their way to their Mission Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a piece of debris hits Watney and destroys his telemetry monitor. To the crew he appears to be dead, and with the storm threatening to destroy the MAV, they have to take off. They return to their mother ship, the Hermes, and begin the multi-year journey back to Earth. The next day, the storm past, Watney wakes up and realizes he’s been marooned. Another mission is planned that will land on Mars in four years, but his food will be exhausted long before that and he’ll have to travel 3200 kilometers to meet the new mission in a rover whose battery lasts for about 30 km before it must be recharged. So, as Watney says, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

Matt Damon has to hold about half of the screen time on his own, which he proceeds to do beautifully. Damon has the Everyman quality similar to Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks; the audience easily identifies with him. While The Martian has been compared to the other recent great sole survivor tale, Hanks’ Cast Away, the two films are completely different in thrust and tone. In Cast Away a man had to revert to his primitive nature to survive; it was essentially a tale of loss, The Martian deals with using the intellect to solve a life-and-death situation – mind over nature – and does it with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. For long segments, Cast Away was a silent film, while The Martian has Watney explain what he’s doing for the station’s video log.

There are two other main settings for the film: the Hermes on its return flight to Earth and Mission Control in Houston. For these, Scott has assembled one of the best casts in recent memory. There’s Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director, Kristen Wiig as a PR person, and Sean Bean as the director responsible for the crew. That part of the story, though, is almost stolen by Donald Glover (“Community”) as a brilliant though maladroit astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On the Hermes, you have a crew captained by Jessica Chastain who gets to go into space this time rather than remaining earthbound as she did in Interstellar. Filling out the crew is Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Aksel Hennie. It’s an embarrassment of rich talent.  

These days you expect the technical visuals and the spacecraft to be first-rate, and Scott doesn’t disappoint. What’s most stunning, though, are the landscapes of Mars. Scott shows vast vistas that underline Watney’s complete isolation.

The Martian has an extended running time of 141 minutes, and covers years with the story. However, you won’t look at your watch until the lights go up at the end. This is a movie that proves science can compete with any fantasy for an edge-of-your-seat thrilling tale. Hopefully it will inspire those who will one day help us actually make the trip

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