We like to think that we have it in us not to quit. We like to believe that as pressure mounts and odds against climb, that we will try harder to complete the task at hand. Often, that just isn’t the case. It’s not a flaw in us; no fault that needs to be addressed. It’s just human nature to crack when the shit starts stacking up.
But what if it wasn’t? What if overwhelming odds were met with a second of fear followed by a tempered resolve and a desire to get to work on fixing the problem? What might we all be capable of then?
THE MARTIAN is the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – a member of NASA’s Ares III mission to Mars. Mere days after arriving on the red planet, the team is hit by a torrential sandstorm – one that threatens to kill them all or leave them stranded. An urgent evacuation is ordered by ground control, but in the scuffle, Watney is hit by debris and knocked out of visual contact. The team can’t see him, and his life support readings are negative. In a flash they must make a decision, and with all evidence pointing towards his death, the decision is to abandon planet and leave Watney behind.
Slight problem though: Mark Watney is alive.
He wasn’t killed, he was only injured. His life wasn’t ended in that sandstorm, only the full operation of his suit’s life support readings. He was left in such a way that allowed him to survive the storm, and now he has been marooned on a planet where help is over a year away from reaching him and no way to contact anyone to report his survival.
Through his movements, NASA’s observation team soon discovers that he is alive. It soon becomes a point of discussion between NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), how and if a mission should be formed to bring Watney home. Watney is making the decision a little easier by using his scientific know-how to begin communicating with NASA, not to mention extend his supply of oxygen, water, and even food.
Every day seems to make the situation more complex; every act of survival by Watney more difficult for any answer besides “go get him” to be the right answer. But hanging a U-turn and scooping up one man from Mars isn’t all that simple. It’s for this reason that the news of Watney’s survival isn’t even delivered to Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the Ares III crew, now headed back to Earth on the Hermes space station.
Watney continues to fight for survival. The challenges of bringing him home continue to mount. And the clock continues to tick.
The thing about a crisis like this is the way it can send the average person into shock and make them seem nothing like themselves. Some people will turtle, some people will lash out. Other people will actually rise above and find the resolve to lead and inspire others. They aren’t always world-class botanists or specially trained soldiers; in our world they can be a civil servant who just has a way of working a problem and getting others to rally.
How that applies to THE MARTIAN is the way the crisis that Watney faces seldom makes him seem less of himself. He’s always a wise-ass, always down-to-earth, always looking for the next answer to the next problem. This attitude comes both from the way that Watney is written, and the way Damon plays him. There’s a cheek to his presence, a certain impish quality. He’s the soldier in the unit who still can make a joke even as hell rains down around him. It’s not an attitude that many people have, but it’s real and it’s an attitude that keeps us in the film.
Where THE MARTIAN seems to come up shortest is in the way it plays the stakes. Though the danger Watney faces is very real – and though by the time the going gets late, we can see the toll it is taking on him – the beats of the story seldom make us feel like he won’t get out of it. We are rapt at every crossroads, when every unexpected wrench in the works leads to a need for lateral thinking. However, between the tone of the film and optimism in Watney’s demeanour, we never feel as though he won’t eventually get off that planet. That’s a glitch in a story like this. It makes every beat in the attempt feel like…formality.
The story away from Watney seems to come with a little more weight to it, considering the politics and limited resources that NASA has to face at every turn. It’s one thing to say “no man left behind”, it’s a whole other ball of wax to consider the financial realities involved with not leaving him. That’s how so many of these sacrifices shake down after all, not because they flat-out cannot be saved, but because the cost – both physical and financial – would be too great. It’s almost enough to make one wonder what a film without Watney might be like? One where we don’t even meet him until the final moments, and instead focus on the stakes and stress surrounding NASA and The Hermes Crew.
The greatest take-a-way from THE MARTIAN is the call to keep working a problem in the face of overwhelming odds. To hear Watney tell it, every dire situation leads one to think that the end has finally come, and that giving in to the fear is probably best. The thing is that we as a species would never get anywhere if we always gave into the fear or surrendered to the likelihood of failure. Strangely, we often see this in our daily lives when people want to give up on the smallest tasks, just because they are “too hard”. One has to believe we’d be capable of so much more if we didn’t give up so easy…if we dug down deep, and tried harder to rise above.