THE MARTIAN (2015): Uplifting in A Good Way

Never blame whoever who thinks that NASA's recent publication about water on Mars is part of promotional gimmicks for The Martian, newest sci-fi flick from Ridley Scott. In fact, this publication was based on scientific evidence and, the most important thing, The Martian has been released worldwide many days before. But, with the hype of Blood Moon phenomenon on the Web recently, The Martian defines the perfect time for us, sci-fi lovers or not, to head our face up to the sky for a moment and think if someday in the future it's possible for us to live our life out there.

Human imagination about living in outer space never runs out to be the source for writers and filmmakers to sell their creativity and, hopefully, inspiration. The Martian still holds tight on this so-called imagination, although I personally don't prefer to call it "imagination" because the sci-fi novel of the same title by Andy Weir adapted for the film is said to be based on accurate research. I have not read the novel actually, but a friend who has told me that it was so rich with superb technical details about NASA, Mars, and astronomy.

It's a simple story: a group of NASA astronauts performing a mission on planet Mars was forced to go back to Earth due to a storm. When they're about to go home, an astronaut/botanist called Mark Watney (Matt Damon) was struck by debris and assumed dead. The other astronauts decided to continue heading home, leaving Mark. It turned out that Mark was still alive. Mark tried with every effort he knew to stay alive on barren, inhabited Mars while trying to contact NASA on Earth, hoping they could bring him home.

When exploring Mars, the astronauts established a station base called HAB. Food, appliances, and oxygen were available in the HAB. Of course, it is all limited; it won't afford to fulfill Mark's needs until he succeeded to contact NASA. With everything available and his knowledge, the universe challenged Mark to make Mars a place worth living, although only for awhile.

Quoting the statement by one of the world’s most reputable filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson, as a film viewer “… I never remember plots of movies. I remember how they make me feel”. For movies with rich science backings like The Martian, I wondered there would be a bunch of technical terms about physics and astronomy which, if left with no adequate comprehension, would make us confused (just like in Interstellar). It could be worse if we already knew the quality of the novel. But, Drew Goddard (the screenwriter) has elaborated this complicated material into such an uplifting, if not enriching, entertainment.

There will no longer be any debates about plot holes (just like what had happened for Interstellar) because if there are any plot holes, debates concerning to them will no longer be interesting. However heavy this hard-science material that lies underneath, The Martian was magically transformed into an entertainment ready to be consumed by anyone. Just knowing that so far Mars has not yet been proven to be a possible place for us to live is so enough for us to digest the film’s story, because the science was there just to be a ‘wowing factor’, not for appearing snobbish (just like what almost appeared in, again, Interstellar—what, ‘Tesseract’? Interdimensional portal?). See how Mark carved out a wooden cross so that it can burn (because all NASA’s appliances are incombustible), produced water from the burning process, created fertilizer out of human’s feces, and finally grew potatoes on the land of Mars. All these trial-and-error processes made us feel like we’re invited to make experiments with Mark and, at last, impressed when the processes showed some good results. Moreover, through these tiring, emotional processes, we’re served with these nostalgic songs from legends like David Bowie and ABBA—being a bold statement that however heavy the story was, why so serious?

And, agreeing Mr. Anderson’s statement previously, if this science knowledge was too hard to be digested at all, The Martian still has an impression: something that makes us feel. Mark, who was forged by the cruel nature of planet Mars, became an inspiration for the viewers, showing that everything, even the slightest thing, if done persistently, will make for a good result. Actually this sort of moral learnings is so general among other kind of entertainments like books or even films, but in The Martian, this learning was wrapped so well by showing, not lecturing, that our effort sometimes meets bad result, and even when the effort meets good result, it could be vanished just in a blink of an eye. It makes viewers involved in all the tiredness, bitterness, and hopelessness that Mark faced. The “trying-thus-succeeding” formula is not agreed all of a sudden in The Martian (and this treatment is consistent throughout the film, although with dynamic intensity), and that makes for a strong realistic impression. It’s simple, but this kind of simplicity is often got complicated or even ignored in any other kinds of entertainment.

One thing that I think is kind of annoying is the way the film shows us what happened on Earth. My biggest notes for Pacific Rim, besides the way it uses foreign terms (Jaeger, Kaiju, …) as a symbolization towards international power competition, is how it let politics straddling over science. The Martian, in a softer manner, still shows similar treatment. NASA, who always looks to have a deep thinking even just to save their own astronauts, is the only story component that develops not as progressively as that of Mark in Mars. Bossy instructions by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), director of NASA, shows how this science-fiction movie still lazily struggles to re-arrange its “fiction” part although the “science” part has been greatly tidied up.

In one passage, I could say that The Martian is uplifting in a very good way. Apart from how the novel is actually like, we are able to see a genius process of writing and filmmaking in delivering a fresh presentation of this weakened sci-fi/survival genre. This is not the best (if they can fill up this rich astronomical knowledge into The Martian without making it less entertaining would be so much better), but The Martian is enough to give us a rest from worldly businesses that dragged us away from contemplating that we are living in only one out of eight planets, that revolves only one among hundreds of billions of stars, in just one out of hundreds of billions of galaxies.

2015 / Adventure, Drama, Sci-Fi / 141 min / PG-13

cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, et al.

based on the book "The Martian" by Andy Weir, screenplay by Drew Goddard

directed by Ridley Scott

Akbar Saputra

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  1. Glad you're back, Akbar!
    Uplifting, that's a perfect vocabulary to review The Martian. I can't agree more with you about Drew Goddard's script, which transfers complicated scientific matters into digestible humors that, I believe, will linger on your head for some times.

    1. Hi! It really is. No wonder many people think it's a true story.

  2. It's too late to watch this in cinema now :(