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‘The Martian’ Review: How This Movie Is Different


As I went to watch ‘The Martian’ I noticed a number of significant differences between this movie and many others made today.

This won’t be a typical “critic review”, instead it’s an analysis from my personal perspective.

Some of the information can be considered SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.

The Martian is a story about a manned NASA mission to Mars in the near future, where one of the astronauts, Mark Watney — played by Matt Damon in the movie — ends up stranded alone on the planet, as the others, thinking him dead, are forced to abort the mission and return to Earth, leaving him behind. The bulk of the story is about Mark’s struggle to survive in the hostile environment, and if, and how, he’s going to get rescued.

The script is based, and closely follows, the book with the same title by Andy Weir. The first three aspects I’ll mention right away are things the book’s author has explicitly spoken about. And they are:

1. The mission’s astronauts have complete knowledge about the craft’s functions and their roles in the mission. Each of them are also experts in their respective fields.

This means that throughout the story, no astronaut is taken by surprise by an ‘unexpected’ need to handle a weird machine or piece of equipment they were supposed to be trained for.

2. There is absolute professionalism in their relationship and interaction with each other, and they have no quarrels between them.

They’re a well-oiled team of carefully selected, highly-skilled astronauts, a few among many, chosen and trained to undergo such a critical and long mission, and also to work well together. Yet, at the same time, they are also very normal people.

3. They have absolute respect and confidence in their commander.

The astronauts do not question or rebel against any of the commander’s orders, and they actively seek the commander’s input prior to critical decisions. The commander, by the way, is a woman, Melissa Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain.

Many movies often rely on “fabricated” events to create tension and drive the plot. By fabricated I mean such events would not happen, or would have easily been anticipated or avoided, in real-life circumstances. An example would be if one of the astronauts caused an accident by mishandling a piece of hardware he was supposed to be trained to use. Another such example would be two astronauts having a dispute or argument during the mission.

The astronauts in the movie don’t get involved in disagreements or petty squabbles. None of them are lone wolfs, rebels, of mavericks. They don’t have personal agendas or interests beyond carrying out the mission, and they don’t hold any sort of personal grudges or conflicts with each other. They also never experience difficulty handling the hardware assigned to them, other than unpredicted malfunctions, which aren’t under their control to begin with.

In the real-life situation of a manned mission to Mars, or in any other mission in space for that matter, astronauts have undergone extensive training, are proficient at their respective backgrounds, and are selected based on their emotional and psychological profiles. Missions are incredible commitments of time, money, and resources, and are planned to the most minute detail. The likelihood of accidents happening because of simple-minded distraction, gross incompetence, or personal agendas, is quite low.

The real, true danger of such a mission is always the unexpected, the unpredictable. It’s the things that might go wrong despite careful planning and training, and that put the astronaut’s lives in danger, and to which they must react on the spot. These are things the astronauts, to a degree, are trained to handle — yet no one can ever know or predict if and how they may happen.

And that is enough. The unpredictable is dangerous enough as it is. You don’t need a fabricated, easy plot device to make a story happen. You can simply call upon any of the risks of such a mission, and then let it do the work for you (plot-wise). This is precisely what happens in The Martian. All the dangers in the plot are unforeseen situations which test the limits, resolve, and ingenuity of the protagonists.

There is one specific situation which is unrealistic. Namely, the sandstorm at the beginning of the plot could not have happened in real life, because the Martian atmosphere doesn’t have enough air pressure for a storm to be of any serious consequence. Yet the situation is still believable, because it stands for an unpredictable event that’s beyond the control of the characters and their training.

Also, there are some situations in the movie where characters must choose to act against the rules and/or orders of their superiors. In fact some of these situations are central in the development of the plot. But the movie always acknowledges how such decisions aren’t without consequence.

4. There is no villain.

In the beginning of the movie, I felt it was almost hinted that Teddy Sanders, NASA’s director, played by Jeff Daniels, would be the main villain.

The character was mostly preoccupied by politics and media coverage related to the missions, and seemed unwilling to take risks to save Mark’s life. It was more or less easy to perceive him as the proverbial douche trying to save his own skin. At one point he hints that Mark is ‘most likely dead’ when everybody else around him is beginning to grow hopes that he might still be alive.

But as the movie goes on, it becomes clear it wasn’t the case. The character does have priorities that reflect his role as director of NASA, the leader carrying everything over his shoulders and bearing the responsibility of all the difficult decisions. Nevertheless, at the end of the day he’s invested in keeping his people alive and bringing them safely back home, as much as everyone else.

Subconsciously I was expecting the movie to have a villain. Many (almost all) movies require the main protagonist to be opposed by a main antagonist, to the point that I’m prepared to identify who the antagonist is as soon as a movie starts. But in real-life, as far as I’m concerned, people are rarely purely evil.

I don’t see the world divided between good people and bad people. That’s nonsense. There might be sides to stories, disputes and conflicts, and perhaps, low-er awareness and high-er awareness. But the hallmark of an educated perception is to assume the other person has a story of his own, and reasons to act the way he does, and believe in what he believes.

While it’s not always easy or possible do see the broader perspective (particularly when it affects you personally) the truth is that very rarely people are negative and harmful just for the sake of it. Pure black-and-white villains are few and far between. So in that sense portraying fictional characters as purely negative is more or less unrealistic. I do consider modern-day movies and series to be growing more realistic in this regard, portraying characters with mixed traits and motivations, able to be the good guy in one situation and the bad guy in the next.

The Martian takes it one step further: there are no antagonists. The only antagonist is the force of Nature and bad luck, in the form of the aforementioned unpredictable events and malfunctions. And as stated, that’s plenty already. The fact that the movie had no villain nor did it need one to carry the plot along, is a welcome gust of fresh air.

The movie appeals to unity rather than polarity, positivity rather than negativity. It’s about rallying behind a common cause, rather than having to choose one side and expecting the other to lose.

5. There is no romantic interest between the male and female leads.

Much like with movie villains, virtually all movies have the lead character developing a romantic interest with the lead of the opposing gender. It seems a movie isn’t a proper movie if some sort of sexual involvement or tension is in there somewhere.

The viewer is almost programmed to expect the main characters to become involved with each other at some point. As soon as an attractive lead shows up on screen, we readily interpret it as a potential sexual bond with the protagonist.

In The Martian, however, the male and female leads — Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain’s characters — have no romantic interest between each other, other than their bond as crew members. All it’s shown about Mark family-wise is that his parents are both alive; and commander Lewis has her own husband waiting for her back on Earth. The only hint of a brewing affair in the movie is between two of the other astronauts, and that’s shown very briefly, when one of them kisses the other’s helmet visor.

The book’s author, Andy Weir, did this purposely. He actively opposed giving the protagonist a romantic interest, or even a family member, such as adaughter, as a motivation for him to survive. The main character doesn’t need relationship drama or attachments as motivation to keep him going. His will to survive is supposed to be enough.

I don’t mean to imply romance and relationships are unimportant in life. I’m only pointing out the drama, the cultural need and expectation to become involved with people, the need for acceptance and adulation, the need to look and act in a certain way to be valued sexually — and all the cultural elements that influence that kind of belief, such as movies and media. I consider these cultural aspects superfluous, and in many a case, harmful.

Because The Martian doesn’t feed on such cultural trend, that’s one of the reasons why this movie is to me a breath of fresh air, in a cultural/social sense.

6. Upliftment

Many who watch the movie say it’s a ‘feel-good’ movie. But it’s not in the sense you go watch it to have a good time, in a light-hearted manner.

The movie is uplifting. It fascinates you. It strikes a cord.

But why?

First, the movie deals with space exploration and the ingenuity and resolve of scientists and astronauts who go about doing these things.

This thematic has the property of being uplifting on its own. As you contemplate the notions of outer space, other planets, astronomy, the distances involved, and so on, you are automatically in contact with the sheer scale of it all. It puts you in touch with the same experience that is looking up at the night sky and feeling minuscule by the sheer dimension of what’s out there — and at the same time, feeling as a part of the whole. When you start to take in all that, your awareness begins to go beyond disputes, divisions, transient preoccupations. You begin to shift into a big picture perspective.

That’s called “expansion of awareness”.

Space exploration in itself has almost a transcendental aspect to it. Even if you don’t meditate, have some form of spiritual practice, or had any out-of-this-world experience, when you contemplate the subject you’re automatically in touch with a context that naturally broadens your horizons and perspective. That’s the true importance of space exploration to mankind.

Second, the movie addresses this topic in a way that is absolutely authentic.

Only a handful of elements in the movie are somewhat imaginary or unrealistic, such as the aforementioned storm in the beginning. But as said previously, the storm is a stand-in for any unpredictable element of Nature, or any unforeseen malfunction, that can always happen at any point.

Otherwise, everything about the movie is utterly realistic. The book’s author went into unimaginable lengths to provide the book with scientific authenticity. He backs up whatever the characters are doing during the movie with the math involved. He’s consistent with modern day scientific knowledge. He’s consistent in the way he portrays the physical reality on Mars, and what concerns and procedures a manned expedition would address. He even calculated the actual dates the missions would take place considering the actual orbits of Earth and Mars, while allowing the North American festivity of the Thanksgiving.

Furthermore, this is not a “fantastical” science fiction movie with aliens and space lasers. Those kinds of movies might be fascinating and wonderful to explore — but they do need you to detach from Earth’s everyday reality. ‘The Martian’, on the other hand, puts you very close to the Earth of today.

As you watch The Martian you feel you’re looking at an actual expedition happening in the near future, with real-life proceedings, real-life technology, and real-life people. That’s its hallmark. It is actually quite difficult to call it a science fiction movie. What it portrays is hardly far-fetched. I’s something that could conceivably happen in some near future.

So you have a science fiction movie, which happens to be very efficient in immersing you in the subject of real life space exploration.

But that’s not all.

Third, as previously explained, there are no villains or adversarial individuals or organizations, being the only difficulties the risky nature of the mission itself. Otherwise, all individuals are solely focused in doing the best they can at their roles.

Even China’s space program offers to help with their secret technology, once they realize NASA’s astronaut is going to die on Mars if they don’t do anything to intervene. Once people on Earth realize there’s a guy stranded on Mars, they literally spare no efforts to try to get him back alive.

So despite an element of politics and competition, people do try to work together to make things happen. While each character, or side, has its own perspectives and priorities, at the same time no one in the movie is really dissonant or opposing with the ultimate goal, which is to rescue Mark. All parties and individuals coalesce in working together, becoming a system bigger than its parts, putting forth their expertise towards the common cause.

The underlying tone throughout this movie is the theme of coming together and uniting for a common cause. But not by nullifying individuality and giving up on your beliefs for the sake of common harmony. Instead, it’s by putting your own unique difference and role working towards a common goal.

It’s a cooperation by many, acknowledging and respecting each one his own different roles, perspectives, and priorities, yet giving each the freedom to put his uniqueness at work in a positive way, even in the face of challenge, adversity, and imperfection.

In this movie there’s no need to waste energy in petty squabbles, personal issues, divisions, or drama. Instead, there’s only the mutual commitment and focus in giving your absolute best in critical situations within critical situations, in order to resolve all challenges and problems, one by one, until all have been overcome.

Even as natural human differences and disagreements are present, there are no significant rifts or conflicts that ultimately prevent the achievement of the goal. The goal is not guaranteed to happen, but it becomes viable in this way. Everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction, and thus the boat has a chance of reaching its destination.

This is why the movie strikes a chord. It’s not just because everyone bands together in a happy-go-lucky movie. It’s because it integrates individuality together with harmony in benevolent intention, in a way that feels feasible and authentic.

That is the true greatness of The Martian. It brings your own awareness forward and upwards, showing you not only what technology can do or what the future could hold, but what human nature can become, how natural differences can work together productive and passionately, and what such a commitment can achieve, depending on our own choices.

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