Review: The Martian – A Science Teacher’s Wet Dream

If you couldn’t tell by the title of this review, I’m gonna get a bit cynical here–but just a bit.  The latest Ridley Scott film, The Martian, was adapted from the 2011 Andy Weir novel of the same name.  The book was hardly an instant success.  After several rejections, Weir ultimately serialized The Martian for online release and only found success through self-publication on the Amazon Kindle.  It wasn’t until 2013 that a major publisher, Crown Books, released it.  Then, it hits bestseller lists,  gets a major Hollywood production, and the rest, as they say, is history.  The book deserves much of its acclaim.  Weir, the son of a physicist and himself educated in computer science, manages to balance his story with an abundance of scientific detail, white-knuckled action, and funny foul-mouthed dialogue.  It was the perfect story for the big screen.  And, it is.The_Martian

First, let me start by saying that The Martian is a very good film.  Very good.  Director Ridley Scott has created a beautiful, polished, Hollywood adventure  here.  I come to the movie with an admitted bias, as Scott’s work has always had a special place in my heart.  His seminal film, Alien, had a huge impact on me as a child.  To me, it was and remains the perfect rendering of style, horror, action, and arthouse filmmaking.  I’ve always felt the influence of it as I approach this medium.  Reverence for Scott aside, The Martian is not Alien.  Its look and feel is more reminiscent of the director’s early work at the helm of television commercials.   It is an extremely focused film, always intent on what it’s doing and its purpose.  It’s methodical, almost scientific (I’m saying so without irony).  The Martian’s design parallels the steady, relentless survival plans initiated by its protagonist, Mark Watney. The result is a consistently gorgeous, if sometimes boring, product.  I’ve been told that math, when deeply considered, can be beautiful.  The Martian is, through much of its 2 hour and 14 minute runtime, mathematical.

And I’m not kidding.  There is a bunch of science on the front end (and everywhere else) of this film.  Watney, who Matt Damon plays with a wonderful comedic underpinning, is a NASA botanist and uses all of his scientific learning to keep himself from imminent death–and death tries get him, and get him, and get him.  You might think, at first, that Watney is the hero of the film.  He’s not.  Science is.  And, at times, it becomes tiresome to watch the same slow calculated scientific response to each new emergency–and there are a lot of emergencies.  Each response is calculated down to the nano-second–as if all emergencies give us the luxury time.  The result, unfortunately, is a colder film than one would expect.  The single, most-prominent issue with The Martian is its lack of emotional depth.  All that science, well, makes for a less human movie.  Apart from its dramatic climax, there isn’t much a hold the audience emotionally.

Science aside, The Martian is still a fun ride with at least one notable performance: Damon is good, damn good.  Also, it’s worth the extra few bucks to experience it in 3-D because Ridley and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski make great use of it.  It is never pedestrian or gratuitous.  The challenges faced by Watney always feel real, not like manipulations of the lesser film, Gravity.  The 3-D enhances this.

In the end, the negatives of The Martian are mathematically outweighed (see what I did there?) by its positives.  Greatly outweighed.  At its best, The Martian can be an inspiration for future scientists and a booster for the lagging NASA space program.   Certainly, it’s not a bad choice for the kids.  We might get a few new scientists out of it.  Nothing wrong with that.

~Stacks

About Kurt Nelson (aka Smallstack)

Writer, editor, podcaster, producer @ Tiny Table 3 covering nerd, pop culture, music, and storytelling.

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