‘The Martian’ is a breath of fresh air

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This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here.

The film “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel of the same name, is a tale of survival set in a near future where manned missions to Mars are as regular as missions to the Moon once were. On the Red Planet, a freak storm forces the visiting NASA crew to evacuate. However, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon, “Interstellar”) is seemingly killed after he is struck by debris, forcing the crew to leave him behind. Watney amazingly survives and must use his wits to stay alive and find a way for NASA to bring him home.

It is a well-known fact that space is a breathtaking yet unforgiving void seemingly determined to keep humanity from ever reaching the depths of the universe. More pessimistic humans like to frequently point this fact out. For example, the space survival cousin of “The Martian,” “Gravity,” is a technical masterpiece that nonetheless provided nothing but a cold warning about the futility of life in space. While that film seemed to tell audiences to be wary of ever reaching the stars, “The Martian” instead celebrates science and mankind’s ingenuity, endurance and heart with an emotional tale unlike anything the science fiction genre has produced before. It’s simply incredible.

Matt Damon (“Interstellar”) plays NASA botanist Mark Watney who gets stranded on Mars. He has to use his scientific knowledge to navigate and survive the Red Planet. Photo courtesy of techinsider.com

Damon and the rest of the cast are what really give this film its soul. While Watney could easily be a fact-spewing robot of a character whose only emotions are despair and rage, Damon makes him truly relatable and charismatic. It is impossible not to root for him as he uses his incredible science knowledge to endure the harsh environments of Mars, showing the deep toll the situation is placing on Watney only when it is truly needed.

The entirety of the large supporting cast, both the crew that left Watney behind (Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar,” Michael Peña, “Ant-Man,” Kate Mara “House of Cards”) and the NASA mission control staff trying to save him (Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom,” Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave,” Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids,” Sean Bean, “Game of Thrones”) bring much-needed urgency and touching investment to their mission to bring their boy home. Watching them come together and strive to save Watney is every bit as gripping and important as watching him struggle to endure.

What is perhaps the most significant and refreshing aspect of this film is its ability to mix passion and scientific accuracy. Rather than being afraid of presenting intricate scientific problems, the film celebrates and embraces humanity’s ability to overcome them while presenting the joy we feel when we succeed. Prolific director Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner”) regains his legendary status after a string of failed films by combining his deft command of feeling, his ability to create breathtaking imagery and a commitment to trusting his audience with the hard facts. What results is a film that, despite all the hardships Watney endures, teaches us to look to the stars and get to work. It’s hard to think of a message better than that.

Ryan Ninesling