‘The Martian’ A Near Perfect Study of the Human Condition (FILM REVIEW)

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The isolated man has been a theme of literature since, well, we’ve had literature. The need for connection is so innate that the exploration of its absence offers us a deep and resonating insight into the pathos of the human condition. From Robinson Crusoe to Castaway, the stories of man are littered with tales of people struggling to maintain some semblance of their humanity in the face of towering isolation. Of course, in all of literature, there has perhaps been no man more isolated than The Martian’s Mark Watney.

Like all of isolation literature, there’s not a whole lot about The Martian that we haven’t seen before. Watney (Matt Damon, who literally carries the film on his shoulders) is a NASA astronaut on one of the first manned missions to Mars. When a freak storm forces the abrupt abortion of the mission, Watney is left by his crew, who mistakes him for dead. Against all odds, in the most inhospitable environment imaginable, he must find a way to survive until NASA can figure out a way to save their missing man.

The beauty of this construct is in its simplicity. Where The Martian differs from its forebears is in the extremity of its character’s isolation. Tales like Castaway are frustrating due to the knowledge that help is, theoretically anyway, nearby. Civilization exists somewhere beyond the shores and the distant horizon. A deserted island may be a foreign locale, but Mars is another beast entirely. It is a place of myth that just so happens to actually exist. The Red Planet speaks to humanity due both to its familiarity—the mountains and deserts of the fourth rock from the sun look none too different from the geological construction of, say, Utah—and its stark differences.

Really, it’s the perfect setting for a grounded sci-fi, and The Martian utilizes this beautifully. Director Ridley Scott has valiantly dashed the criticism of his naysayers who claimed that the director had lost his touch after the disappointment of Prometheus. He’s managed to capture the wonder and awe of the source material from novelist/NASA enthusiast Andy Weir and translate it with stunning clarity for the big screen. Never before has Mars looked so vibrant or felt so alive.

As mentioned above, The Martian is very literally carried by its star. We watch Watney as he struggles to find a way to sustain himself until such time as he can be rescued. Using wit, intellect, and science, he overcomes obstacle after perilous obstacle in his efforts to survive. It would have been very easy for the film to descend into cheese and schlock, but Damon’s efforts and charm create a fully actualized character for whom you cannot help but root. For anyone with any doubts as to Damon’s ability as an actor, your fears are unfounded. It’s the performance of a career for Damon, and I expect he will be rewarded come awards season.

The real appeal of The Martian is in its study of humanity. As simple an idea as “bring him home” is conceptually, back on earth things are not as cut and dry as we would like to believe. There are political realities to consider, budgetary constraints, and operational logistics that all stand in the way of the simplicity of the solution. The juxtaposition—Watney’s “get it done” mentality vs. NASA and earth’s bureaucratic hand wringing—encompasses all facets of the human struggle. As much as NASA and NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) wants to be able to just get it done, they are forced to contend with outside considerations such as cost and feasibility. The dueling nature of the various realities of man so often come to a head, and it’s displayed here perfectly.

My one major qualm with The Martian was in the portrayal of Watney’s crew, who don’t get near enough screen time or quality characterization, considering their importance to the overall story. They feel like afterthoughts, mostly, or a plot device at best. It’s a shame because, in the novel, they’re all deeply fleshed out characters with motivations and plot momentum. Here, they’re little more than cutouts used as props. Still, despite these limitations, the cast does a mostly fine job with their material and any criticism I could levy at them would be little more than pointless quibbling.

In short, The Martian is one of the best films of this or any year. It’s the sort of reality based, grounded science fiction that has been missing from both literature and cinema for too many years now. Not everything needs to be bigger and badder to catch our attention. Alien invasions don’t need to be thrust of your sci-fi epic. Humanity, after all, provides a deep enough reservoir for exploration, and we don’t need a world ending plot device to catch our attention. Sometimes it’s enough to hold one life in the balance. Sometimes one life is all you need to remind yourself that all life is beautiful.

The Martian is in theaters now.

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