First thoughts on watching _The Martian_

My son and I went to see The Martian tonight, along with a lot of other people.  Owain’s a big fan of the novel, and is also an engineering and space maven.  I liked the book, too (short review).  Overall we were very impressed.

Quick plot summary: a human expedition successfully lands on Mars, but has to leave in a hurry due to a dangerous storm.  They leave behind (by mistake) botanist Mark Watney, who now has to figure out how to survive and get back home.  Meanwhile NASA discovers Watney’s survival, and scrambles to help him from 50 million miles away.

The film manages to pull off a nice balance between hard science fiction and a speedy plot. A great deal of the story involves identifying and solving chemistry, engineering, communication, computing, agronomy, physics, and math problems.  Weir’s novel made this accessible by good description and a persistent sense of often self-abnegating humor.  Ridley Scott’s movie largely follows suit, often using visual storytelling in place of nonfiction text.

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 A high point involves a young scientist (grad student?) explaining his solution to a problem by drafting NASA leaders as visual aids, then goofily flying a stapler around a meeting room.  Each minute interaction with those administrators touches their characters (authoritative, confused by geeks) while showing us a complex idea clearly.

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Stapler scene from the Martian

The visual are gorgeous, when Scott opens up the screen.  Jordanian deserts make for staggering Martian landscapes.  Fine CGI shows the lovely interplanetary craft Hermes and the surfaces of Earth and Mars.  I wanted the movie to linger at those moments, letting us savor the eye candy, but it raced onwards.

The plot works like a thriller, as IO9 explains, with a series of crises that build on and escalate from each other.  The movie begins by leaping onto Mars, allowing a brief scene-setting before kicking off disaster.  It never lets up from there, racing ahead into a spectacular orbital dynamics climax, until a brief epilogue (not in the novel) serves as an airlock back to our lives.

Once back in our lives, we are meant to desire more space exploration.  As I noted with Interstellar (2014), this is a movie that’s unabashedly pro-space.  Unlike Gravity (2013), which emphasizes space as a zone of terror, sees the physical destruction  of most of humanity’s space presence, and celebrates not exploration but a return to a womb-like home, The Martian exhorts us to return to space.  It’s a fierce challenge, but one we can meet with optimism and the scientific method.

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 The last image of the movie is of the Earth receding below us, as we move away, presumably towards Mars and beyond.  I’m biased in favor of the cause, and found it inspiring.

Not all of the science is sublime.  There’s a lot of duct-taping, tossing stuff out of windows, some DIY surgery, stirring human feces in a bucket, accidentally burning oneself, and jumping on a roof to knock a big hole in it.  That’s a nice balance, actually, giving us both types of science: low-rent, accessible, home experiment style, along with Big Science of the NASA and 2001 sort.  This strategy makes the film less intimidating than a science lecture, while offering lyrical beauty.

A film like this has a hard time avoiding cinematic echoes.  The most resonant one is to Apollo 13 (1995), with its extensive depiction of space science problem solving, slide rules, horn-rimmed glasses, and all.  I think The Martian has a little call-back to Scott’s very great Alien (1979), as the opening titles look similar, and occur over a related background of a looming planet backed by ominous music.  Scott backs away from the tone right away, though, as Ars Technica observes.  At least one reviewer noted that Matt Damon starred in another movie where his character had to be epically rescued at great expense, Saving Private Ryan (1998), but that doesn’t add much to this film.  I was reminded of Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), which contains a surprising amount of science for a movie with Adam West and a cute monkey, and is also about surviving on that red planet.

Owain and I posing before The Martian poster

I have enjoyed some of the bad reviews, because they illustrate how not to watch this movie.  The Christian Science Monitor claims the film lacks a sense of awe, which either means they weren’t paying attention to the sublime scenes, or that today’s audience is even more ADHD-afflicted than I thought. Slate decided to just wave at the science, and ignore the science fiction, in favor of focusing on the actors and their careers.  The review damns the movie with faint praise, cheerily and disdainfully calling it “hokum.”  The reviewer even offers up this gem:

Kristen Wiig [plays] NASA’s snippy director of PR (who, confusingly, has the same first name as her Bridesmaids character, making you wonder how she went from cupcake entrepreneur to aerospace bureaucrat).

Some serious cinematic insight there.  (These days I tend to hate-read Slate.  Also hate-listen to some of its podcasts. )  Science just doesn’t do it for some reviewers… and that makes this film’s focus on science a risky move for the American market.

A friend who saw the movie with us offered a different critique.  She found the humor off-putting, not credible for people in such situations.  I wonder if other audiences will have a similar reaction.  I believed the tone because I’d read the book and also know something of gallows humor, but maybe the total effect is too flippant.

What I’d like to do now is watch the movie again, but with a pause button so I can ogle the glorious landscapes and spacecraft.  Perhaps Owain and I will built a Hermes from Legos, when he isn’t studying to get into engineering school.

Overall, I recommend the film.  See it on a big screen.

PS: we didn’t have a 3d option, so can’t speak to that.

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13 Responses to First thoughts on watching _The Martian_

  1. Thanks for the share!!!

  2. Tom says:

    Interesting about your friend not thinking the humor was believable in stressful situations Bryan. Having been in such situations and in even my current work with science types I can say unequivocally that professionals, who like Watney have trained extensively and repetitively for emergencies, use humor as a leavening agent and a way of keeping an otherwise stressful situation from becoming overwhelming. In our marine mammal work we have to constantly remind ourselves not to fall into our normal humor pattern when there are “civilians” present because they simply would not understand (much like your friend). However it is a real instinct and a natural reaction to stress among those who prepare for handling stressful situations.

  3. tbirdcymru says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film. My husband and I saw it last night as well and really enjoyed it. It was a refreshingly positive film, and positive about science and space as you identified. It lightly touched the issue of God, also positively, avoiding any unnecessary “pro-science must be anti-God” stance. To me one of the best notions to arise was the role played by ethics in any scientific, corporate, or public endeavour. (Slight Spoiler alert) The Sean Bean character spoke the ethical considerations which had to take precedence in solving such a heavy and complex problem. Finally I could say that to enjoy this film it helps if one is a geek, but Ridley Scott makes sure this not a prerequisite.

  4. Joy Pixley says:

    Thanks for giving such a thorough review, Bryan. It sounds like something I’d really enjoy–especially if they got the science (at least mostly) right. I hardly see anything on the big screen these days, but I’ll put it on my wish list.

  5. haymest says:

    This is the ultimate Maker movie. The book was the same. I took my son and he loved it. He now wants to go back and read the book (he’s never done that before). It’s something all of our students should see, no matter what the discipline.

  6. joypalmer says:

    Have been thinking about taking my boys for a while now, and this review has clinched it for me – particularly now I know there’s duct tape and human faeces involved 😉

  7. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts | Bryan Alexander

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