Today, in 2016, we have launched thousands of things into the stars, including people. Yet we still haven’t figured out how to send humans to Mars. It’s one of our biggest mysteries. Perhaps because we can see the planet, it seems so close, but so, so far. With freezing conditions, terrible weather, and an atmosphere of only 0.13% oxygen, it is truly inhospitable to humans, even with our advanced technology and space suits.
But traveling to Mars is a dream of ours. We’ve sent rovers to scope out the terrain, and the first trip to Mars to include humans is scheduled for 2030. This fascination explains why people flocked to the movie The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, when it was released in 2015.
Based on a novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is set in November 2035, when the crew members of Ares III are exploring the Acidalia Planitia on sol 18 of their mission on Mars. A sol is a day on Mars, and is just a little bit longer than a day on Earth. The astronauts are supposed to be there for 31 sols. But an unexpected dust storm starts up and accelerates to severe conditions rapidly. The crew of Ares III is forced to leave. On the way back to the ship, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris. The crew believes him dead, and leaves without him.
As you can probably guess from the title of the movie, he isn’t dead. Instead, Watney wakes alone on Mars to a low oxygen warning and a piece of debris impaled in his stomach. And from there, things only get worse.
Watney attempts to live on Mars until he can be rescued. I won’t give away spoilers, but I can tell you one thing: Watney is supposed to die. He has enough food and water to last for 31 sols. The next expedition to Mars, Ares IV, will arrive in four years. So he has to find a way to grow food and create water, as well as travel across the planet to the site of the Ares IV landing in a rover that is only made to travel short distances. Worse, if Watney can’t contact NASA, this is all pointless.
So, there’s pretty much death everywhere you look. This is where I find the acting, as well as Watney’s characterization in the book, astounding. Andy Weir creates a character that will keep you hooked, and Matt Damon is the perfect fit. Damon does an excellent job of showing off the creative humor in the script; if he weren’t able to do that, the stress of the plot would have overcome me far before the end of the movie.
Watney is stuck in perilous conditions, and his only companions are the endless red rock of Mars and Death, who is constantly staring down at him, waiting. So, naturally, he has to be a character capable of laughing in the face of his own demise. He constantly complains about his limited music options, classifies himself as the colonizer of Mars because he is growing crops there (“In your face Neil Armstrong!” he says triumphantly), and reminds us that he is technically a space pirate whenever he travels in the rover, because Mars is not owned by any country.
The other characters in The Martian are developed well throughout the movie. Of course, it’s difficult to develop them as much as Watney, as the movie focuses on him, but I do think they were done well. The actors who play the higher-ups in NASA are tailored beautifully to their roles, each one clean cut and emitting power. The actors who play the crew are the perfect mix of obedient and rebellious. You can tell how smart the characters are, not because they are going around spewing facts, but because of the way they hold themselves, the way they deal with problems. And the ensemble that plays the minor NASA employees are great! They portray how it must feel to be so smart but lack the authority to do much. They also do a great job of showing how difficult it is to work a job that revolves around esoteric thinking at irregular hours.
Another amazing thing about this movie is the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Wolski is also the cinematographer for many other well-known movies, including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In The Martian, he gives us beautiful views of the rocks and sand, all different shades of red. Sadly, there aren’t any real shots of Mars. Most of the movie was filmed in Wadi Rum, a desert in Jordan. Wadi Rum has the closest geography to Mars that you will find on Earth, and this isn’t the first film about the Red Planet to be shot there. A total of twelve American movies have featured those stunning rock formations and red sand.
The special effects in The Martian are spectacular, especially the realism of the space travel scenes. My favorite moments are the far-off shots of the space station that the Ares III crew is staying on as they travel back to Earth. It’s truly spectacular to see our planet, the Blue Planet, in the background while we watch a state-of-the-art (for 2035) spacecraft. These scenes are just transition scenes, but I thought they were awesome.
From the beginning, one of the most important themes of the movie is unity. The astronauts of the Ares III mission clearly don’t want to leave Mars without one of their crewmates. The loss of Watney is emphasized by the one empty seat in the ship and the looks of torment on the crew's faces as they blast off without him. Throughout the movie, everyone has to work together to keep astronauts alive in space. The entire team has to listen to everyone’s ideas, including those of an astrophysicist who lives on coffee and has never been recognized fully before. The NASA team even has to collaborate with organizations they are not typically friendly with. In a situation like this, one that probes mysteries we have yet to uncover, it is important that everyone be able to work together. When we delve into something new, something no one has ever really done before, we can’t do it alone. We need to join forces, whether that means two people collaborating or two powerful organizations that have clashed in the past partnering, if only temporarily.
Another theme of the movie is mindfulness. If Mark Watney were not mindful about his situation, if he didn’t take in every little detail and pay attention to the present, rather than the past or future, he would die a quarter of the way through the movie. That’s the simple, hard truth. He would be overwhelmed, drowning in thoughts, and ready to throw the door open when Death knocked. He would give up. He would break before he began.
But Watney takes each problem as it comes to him, and not before. He finds multiple things that are key to his survival that he would not have noticed if he weren’t attentive to his surroundings. He doesn’t let himself focus on the overwhelming black hole that is the future, and he doesn’t mourn over the past. He focuses on what is, and that is the only way he might survive.
“I guarantee you that at some point, everything is going to go south on you. You’re gonna say ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just… begin. You do the math, you solve one problem, then you solve the next one. And then the next, and if you solve enough problems you get to come home.” This is a speech from Watney’s biggest moment and greatest reflection. I wonder if Andy Weir knew these words can apply to any person, because everyone has problems they have to solve. Some of them aren’t as big as being stuck on another planet, but the key to working through them is taking them one at a time, and not accepting doom. We just have to keep going. That’s how we survive.
And that’s life. We’re going to discover new things — maybe about ourselves, maybe about Earth or even the universe — and we need to grapple with this information as it comes. If we want to be able to deal with the crushing pressure of discovery, we need to find a way to focus on the present moment — to let go of the past and future, not to a point where we forget about them, but to a point where they become nothing more than tools for our own gain.
I would rate The Martian 4.5 out of 5 stars. I thought it was a really good movie, though not the best movie ever. The themes were awesome and the plotline and characterization were just splendid. I think the movie is appropriate for kids age 12 and up. The worst part for me was probably when Watney had to perform surgery upon himself after getting impaled, although the rest of the movie is very stressful as well. There’s also a bit of colorful language, but what do you expect? I would guess that it would get quite frustrating, trying to survive Mars.
Olivia Bailey is 13 and in the eighth grade at Frank Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth, Maine. Her hobbies include reading every fantasy novel she can get her hands on, writing about Odorea (a world she created with her friends), drawing constantly, skiing at Saddleback Mountain Ski Area, and playing with her dog, Piper, who enjoys chewing up things bigger than she is. Olivia is working hard to get her whole school to participate in mindfulness exercises and has nearly succeeded.
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