05 October 2015

"Mars Will Come To Fear My Botany Powers"

The 2010s have been a great decade for films that capture the sense of adventure, ambition, beauty and wonder of space exploration. Alfonso CuarĂ³n's beautiful and breathtaking Gravity and Christopher Nolan's emotional and visionary Interstellar are two such examples that I particularly enjoyed.

Ridley Scott's The Martian draws on these films and others, from Silent Running to Apollo 13, injecting humour, 1970s pop music and a strong central performance from Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut left for dead on Mars after an accident during a freak storm separates him from his team who are forced to abort. It turns out that Watney isn't dead after all, but when he wakes up in the middle of the dusty Martian landscape, he realises that he has no way of communicating with his crew or with Houston. This is the least of his worries, however, as he must first make it back to the Hab (base) before his oxygen runs out and then perform surgery on his stomach where part of an aerial has become lodged.

Watney knows that the odds of him surviving for long enough for the next Martian mission to arrive — several years in the future — are slim, but with his inventive and methodological problem-solving skills, even this incredible feat starts to seem reasonable. "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this," he explains to his video diary. One of his biggest challenges is to find a new food supply as the Hab's supplies will only last for a year or two. "Luckily, I'm a botanist," he says, and before too long, he has planted potatoes, fertilised using his own biological waste, and worked out a way to create water by reacting hydrogen and oxygen — no mean feat given NASA's fire-retardant equipment.

Eventually, NASA finds out that Watney is still alive and they are able to work out an extremely rudimentary way of communicating with him using pathfinder equipment from the 1990s. Jeff Daniels' steely-eyed Director of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor's Director of the Mars Missions and their crews are left to try to find out a way to get some food supplies to Mars that will last Watney until the next Ares Mission arrives. But will he be able to survive that long?

Scott's visually stunning movie is long, clocking in at 2h20, but it never dragged. The last act is extremely suspenseful and nerve-wracking — like Gravity, it left me literally breathless — but although the earlier parts of the film were less tense, they were also very entertaining. Damon's charisma and the humour and realism of the script (by Drew Goddard, based on Andy Weir's novel) contribute strongly to this. The Martian isn't a comedy, but there are some funny lines — often involving Watney swearing into his video diary or at NASA, or complaining about the his commander (Jessica Chastain)'s 1970s music collection that forms the bulk of the audiovisual repertoire he has been bequeathed. I'm not an ABBA fan, but this film may represent the best use of Waterloo in a cinematic work. I also enjoyed the tracks from David Bowie and Gloria Gaynor and more generally, the soundtrack helped to give the film a more upbeat vibe than many others in the genre.

Although Damon is great, The Martian has a talented, if sometimes under-used, supporting cast. Chastain and Ejiofor are, as always, excellent and on a personal note (as I work in science communication), I enjoyed Kristen Wiig's turn as NASA's Director of Media Relations, who has to advise her bosses to try to avoid total PR disaster.

Ultimately, The Martian manages to tell a highly engaging story about a courageous and tenacious man who will do what it takes to survive in formidable circumstances. But I defy anyone to see the film and not to be proud of all of that humanity has accomplished so far in spaceflight and to be optimistic about what we might yet achieve.

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