One day, we will go to Mars. And when we do, it will be humanity’s most monumental adventure since we first set foot on the moon. But it will not be an easy expedition, nor a safe one. The bold few who will make the trip will put themselves at extraordinary risk from the moment their rocket ignites for liftoff to the moment they step foot back on mother Earth. That is one of the strange effects of the American space program: we have successfully touched the void beyond our world so many times that we tend to forget just what a remarkable thing it really is. Well, people who never left the ground do. I am confident that no one who has ever gone into space has ever forgotten for a single moment just how special and trying their trip was.
That seems to be the central point of The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of a 2011 novel by Andy Weir. The novel is a fairly basic survival story set on Mars, and the science of how to stay alive on Mars and get back home again is as central—more so, really—than any of its characters. Weir consulted extensively with the scientific community when he wrote the novel, and it shows. It is less a story than it is a role-playing exercise for a NASA crisis management scenario.
Scott’s film adaptation takes no such approach, willing to skimp on scientific detail when necessary to try to bring more humanity into a story that is about one of our most fundamental drives as a species: to explore the unexplored. And on that front, the movie is pretty successful (though I know some fans of the novel disagree), creating a compelling tale of adventure in space that relies not on aliens or metaphysics to capture our attention, but the endless details that seem to collectively tell us: stay home; you have no place out here. Oh, but we do. We do.
The story involves the Ares III mission to Mars, which goes awry when the landing team gets caught in a surprise dust storm that threatens to destroy their lander. When team botanist Mark Watney disappears in the dust, and his suit’s signals go dead, the team must leave Mars without him. Watney is mourned both by his crewmates and by all of Earth. Only he’s not dead. Barely surviving the storm, he makes it back to the team’s habitat, heals himself, and takes stock of his situation. He is alone on a planet with enough food to last him for a short while. His soonest rescue will be in four years, and far from the habitat. If he’s going to make it, he has to use every scrap of his grit, composure and scientific skill to raise crops, modify the leftover gear, and survive the various disasters that will befall him as he scrapes out a meager castaway’s life on an alien planet.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA argues over how best to help Watney, and eventually, a mix of sedition within NASA, a near-mutiny among Watney’s crew members and some unexpected help from those we might think of as rivals all come together for the best chance to save Watney. But here’s the thing: Watney got into this mess with a meticulously planned and executed mission with plenty of backups. His rescue mission is comparatively loose on the details and involves a whole lot more risk than normally goes into a trip to Mars. But it’s the only shot Watney’s got. Will it be enough?
The joy of this movie lies in the extent to which we can appreciate the stress our heroes are under as they attempt a mission too impossible to presume success, but too important to consider not doing. If the world held its breath for three days during the Apollo 13 crisis, it holds it breath for more than a year with Watney’s marooning on Mars, and during that time, we see the most wonderful thing about our greatest technical endeavors: not so much the triumph of our science and ingenuity that makes them possible, but the most noble aspects of our human character that make them worth the risk.
Throughout the Martian, we see no villains, really. Just different kinds of heroes all trying to do what’s right, even though some of them get in each other’s way. But throughout it all, we see Watney digging deep into the reservoirs of his own humor to keep himself focused and strong, and the more the guy builds his home on Mars, the more we both want to see him return, and yet, kind of regret that he’ll have to leave such a monument to his cleverness behind. Watney has no such illusions, though. There are times, sure, when he revels in the pioneering aspect of his ordeal, but he’s quick to point out just how much it sucks to be stuck on Mars. But even then, he’s able to think of others, and there’s a moment in truth here that I just love.
Once he re-establishes communications (barely) with Earth, he inquires about his crewmates. How are they doing? How did they react to the news that he is still alive? When informed that NASA isn’t telling the Ares III crew that Watney survived for fear of distracting them on their trip home, Watney grows furious. Not for his own sense of validation, but because he knows that his crewmates will never forgive themselves for doing the right thing and leaving him behind. They deserve to know he’s alive, so they can focus on having made the proper decision. When Watney digs in, NASA relents, and informs the crew. Their sense of relief and gratitude is a beautiful reminder that the distance between worlds will always be immense, but the distance between people is not.