Sean K. Cureton

Another Stranger in a Strange Land

In Movie Reviews: 2015 on October 17, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The Martian Theatrical Poster

20th Century Fox

The Martian
Directed by Ridley Scott
3 out of 4 stars

After the debacle of his ill-conceived, quasi-sequel to Alien, Ridley Scott has returned to the science-fiction genre once more with yet another space odyssey to rival the likes of what has come before. Unlike 2012’s fantasy-fable Prometheus, The Martian, adapted from the novel by real life software engineer Andy Weir, takes on the grandiosity of space travel less as a means for wild extrapolation and adventure but instead examines the real world implications of deep space exploration. In the film, as in Weir’s original novel, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, played in the film by Matt Damon, finds himself stranded on the surface of Mars after a freak sand storm strikes the planet’s surface, and his fellow scientists leave him for dead in a scrum to leave the planet’s immediate atmosphere. The rest of the film then becomes a Robinson Crusoe travelogue of sorts, with Watney speaking directly into a camera in order to record his day-to-day ordeals and brief spates of existential terror. Written and produced by film and TV veteran Drew Goddard, Weir’s novel becomes a wondrous love letter to outer space as it has been seen on film, even as Scott makes a bold departure from the horror and turmoil of such past successes in the genre as Alien and Blade Runner, Mark Watney a more willing and self-assured protagonist capable of overcoming overwhelming odds in a world more akin to our own.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Scott’s new film is the optimism and enthusiasm it holds for the human spirit, and collaborative innovation in general. Where Ellen Ripley was prototypically required to play the role of the “Final Girl” in a franchise that become dependent on horror movie tropes, and Rick Deckard was crippled with philosophical ponderings over the fundamentals of human consciousness, Watney is freed from such genre-based thematic recursions, and instead focuses on surviving as yet another stranger in a strange land. In Goddard’s script, the film’s narrative beats are empathetically articulated, playing upon the heartstrings and steadfastness of an utterly American spirit seemingly imbued into the film’s very fabric. Over the past half century, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact have rendered the science-fiction genre on film self-involved and overly concerned with answering grandly spiritual questions. Shirking off the legacy of said contemporary classics, Goddard and Scott have delivered a new film more akin to the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, films where deep space holds a little danger that always gives way to the endurance and ingenuity of the human mind and soul.

Damon plays a credible NASA astronaut living well into the twenty-first century in Scott’s new film, predominantly due to his unwillingness to be beaten by an apparently inhospitable environment otherwise intent on breaking his will to live. In Watney’s refusal to be defeated by his circumstances from the very start of the film, Weir’s original space epic becomes one about the individual innovation, hard science-based facts, and just the slightest bit of bureaucratic negotiation. In Goddard’s script, Watney’s journey for survival is never fantastically imagined, and no supernatural or surreal elements ever seek to influence and corrupt his reading of the events that continue to surround him, neither directly nor indirectly. Likewise, the men on the ground at NASA in the film never become entirely defeated by the obstacles that they are forced to overcome and address across a chasm of deep space, even as they grow embittered over how best to go about solving Watney’s central dilemma. The film thus becomes akin to the literary tradition set by Daniel Defoe in the early eighteenth-century, Watney a modern day Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on his very own island of sorts, even if his struggles have abandoned a metaphorical God in favor of rational realism and critical thinking.

Alien was a fundamental shift in the very nature of how science-fiction films were constructed and told to their audiences, like 2001: A Space Odyssey before it. In both films, certain dramatic and thematic tropes were introduced by which the loneliness of deep space exploration might be examined here on earth, the vast expanse of interstellar space both inspiring and alienating. In space, no one can hear you scream, as Ellen Ripley so infamously found out, and necessity of survival at all costs becomes an impending threat and boon alike. Enter Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut readily aware of the dangers inherent to his small step onto the surface of Mars, but willingly takes several subsequent leaps and bounds for mankind. Scott’s titular Martian is therefore a surprising entity in his authentic humanity, neither a machine nor an extraterrestrial monster, but instead an inspiring avatar for those of us eager to reach out and discover the unknown despite the odds.

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