Who wouldn’t want to be a space pirate? Granted, if you had to be stranded alone on a barren planet for over a year for that chance to happen, it might not be so appealing. Still, space pirate: think of the possibilities.
It is this optimistic, jocular tone that Ridley Scott’s The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, takes as it follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, through the trials and tribulations of having to remodel rudimentary living conditions after being presumed dead and left behind by his crew during a mission to Mars. Stranded initially without means of communication to Earth, Watney’s life-saving ventures range from making water using hydrogen and oxygen gas (which almost gets him blown up) to growing potatoes in a homemade greenhouse (you don’t want to know where he got the fertilizer for that project, just saying). His life gets a little less difficult when an observant mission control operator notices a moving rover on the satellite surveillance of Mars’ surface late one night, giving those on Earth the first sign that Watney is in fact alive. With some quick thinking and teamwork, they rig up a way to communicate and suddenly Watney isn’t so alone anymore. They continue to help him survive in the harsh conditions of the planet, which he does all to the lively beats of disco hits, as that is apparently all his team’s commander, played by Jessica Chastain, loaded into the system during their stay, much to his chagrin.
The 1970s soundtrack calls back to the post-space race era, using the backdrop of where we have been to throw into sharp relief how far we have come, and also how far we can still go in exploring the stars. Still, The Martian, at its heart, is not a two-hour promotion for NASA and its programs. Though it does get ample on-screen time, political maneuverings and calculated public relations decisions made in board rooms rival the time spent problem solving in mission control or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), giving the organization an almost ominous corporate vibe. Driven by Jeff Davis’ performance as the callous program director, NASA becomes the antagonist when the decision is made to keep the news of Watney’s survival from his crew, who are making their way back to Earth, in an attempt to keep their focus on the mission to return home safely.
It is this theme–balancing the lives of several versus one–that refracts throughout the back half of the film, making the humanity of this survival story begin to outshine the science in a subtle and heartwarming way. Thus it comes as no surprise that the returning Ares III crew chooses to risk their lives in a genius attempt, crafted by an eccentric but endearing JPL engineer, to change course and retrieve Watney even though NASA initially rejects the plan. As every pirate adventure should, mutiny and risky swashbuckling ensue, ending in a daring rescue attempt that requires the brains and particular STEM skills of all six members of the Ares III team. In a breathtakingly beautiful and nerve-wracking sequence, an injured, exhausted, and bearded Watney attempts to launch into Mars’ atmosphere with a jerry-rigged pod to reach his crew’s ship which is orbiting by, all while the whole world watches on.
Whether or not he makes it–well, you’ll have to go see The Martian yourself to find out the answer to that question. Though the AMC Loews Boston Common 19 will no longer screen the sci-fi adventure after this week, Regal Fenway Stadium 13 and AMC Assembly Row 12 have showings scheduled for the next two weeks, so catch it while you can.
Lastly, for those interested in how accurate Watney’s scientific efforts to remodel his surroundings are, NASA  and The Guardian  both addressed this question, and Neil deGrasse Tyson also weighed in on the matter via Twitter with some very amusing and pointed commentary .
- Fox, Steve. “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian’.” NASA. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 11 Sept 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nine-real-nasa-technologies-in-the-martian
- Zubrin, Robert. “How Scientifically Accurate Is The Martin?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, Limited. 06 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/06/how-scientifically-accurate-is-the-martian
- Gettell, Oliver. “Neil deGrasse Tyson Tweets His Thoughts on The Martian.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly, Inc. 2 Oct 2015. Web. 03 Nov 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/10/02/neil-degrasse-tyson-the-martian