Mark Watney: Space Pirate (a.k.a. The Martian)
Matt Damon’s latest film opens with panoramic scenes of both space, and Mars. Within seconds of establishing the crew’s location on the red planet, inter-character comedy begins. Normally this is where one would expect a lengthy build up, primarily exposition, before the action takes over. Not so with The Martian. Barely five minutes in and suddenly an impossibly large and powerful dust storm bears down on the base camp. This mega storm causes an emergency evacuation of not only the camp, but also the planet, and results in Watney being left behind, presumed dead. I say the storm is impossible for several reasons. 1. Mar’s atmosphere is too thin to sustain winds of a speed needed to whip up that much material. 2. Mar’s atmosphere would need to be five times stronger than Earth’s to create those wind speeds. 3. Even if a powerful storm occurred on Mars, with winds only strong enough to lift fine grain particles, not rocks, and certainly not the crew’s equipment, it would not be as large as the one in the film. Both of my statements are based on information presented by Science vs Cinema’s analysis of The Martian and it’s portrayal/use of actual science in the movie. Even in 3D the storm scene was not overly impressive, however, in its defense, I live in Arizona where dust storms of massive proportion are a very regular occurrence.
In fact Arizona’s dust storms are only equaled by the storms of the Sahara Desert and possibly the Australian Outback. So my lack of awe is based more on “been there, done that” (both in town, and once while camping), rather than any failings of the special effects team.
With the dust storm, the film’s main storyline now unfolds. Expecting a huge action/adventure space drama, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how much comedy was present. In his efforts to create a ‘farm’ in a now empty section of the ARES III Mars habitat, and an extra water supply, Watney uses science, and successfully ‘burns water’ before figuring out his error. Being the only human on the red planet, Watney keeps himself sane by listening to music (in addition to recording video journals of his struggles and progress). Much to his dismay, the only music library belongs to Melissa Lewis, the Ares III mission commander. Commander Lewis is played by Jessica Chastain, who played the adult Murph in Interstellar. Lewis has an obsession for disco. Throughout the film Watney makes cracks about the music selection, even stating he will die on Mars if he has to listen to anymore of it. Near the middle of the film though, he is seen ‘chair dancing’ after declaring Lewis’ least disco song is “Hot Stuff”, which then fills the air. Personally I enjoy a good ’70’s disco track. Especially if it’s by one of the great divas of the day. Needless to say I think this soundtrack will be on my wish list.
Throughout the movie Watney makes repeated jokes about his situation. While working on his potato ‘farm’ he loudly proclaims himself to be “the greatest botanist on this planet” and after learning from his alma mater that “once you grow crops, you have officially colonized” the planet, Watney declares “I colonized Mars. In your face Neil Armstrong”. Given the severity of his situation, the continual use of comedy is not only understandable, but also imperative. Humans are innately social creatures (with exceptions), such extreme isolation would overwhelm anyone, no matter how well-trained they were.
I myself have used humor in very stressful situations. It relieves the stress, and provides the strength to get through one more day. In fact Watney often repeats this mantra, “solve one problem, then solve the next”, throughout the film. Even with supplies dwindling, he jokes about dipping a potato in some crushed Vicoden because no one is there to stop him, and more importantly he ran out of ketchup 7 days ago.
The comedy continues on Earth as well. A meeting at NASA to discuss rescue plans is dubbed ‘Project Elrond”. When asked by a female staff member what the significance of Elrond is, the men in the room try explaining the secret council of Elrond from the Fellowship of the Ring. Since she is the only one in the room not familiar with the LOTR books, or even films, she tells her colleagues she hates them all. Adding to the humor is Sean Bean in the role of Mitch Anderson, Hermes Mission Flight Director. Sean Bean is most recognizable to the geek community as Boromir from the Fellowship of the Ring. Further adding to the LOTR comedy is Jeff Daniels’ character, Teddy Sanders, Head of NASA, stating that he wants his code name to be Glorfindel. Those familiar with Tolkien Elvish get an extra giggle, Glorfindel translates to blond/golden haired. Rounding out the nerd-tastic cast is Chiewetel Eijiofor as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars Mission Director, better known to geeks as the Operative from Serenity, and to gays as Lola from Kinky Boots. The moment is brief, but it plays out beautifully. Finally a decision is made, and rescue efforts are underway. For his part Watney has to drive for several months (limitations of his equipment, and the fictional terrain, not the size of Mars) from Acidalia Planitia
to Schiaparelli Crater,
and commandeer the ARES IV MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle). This leads to a description of International waters – which technically Mars is in, and that Watney’s actions, not officially sanctioned by NASA, make him a ‘pirate’. Since he’s on another planet, and is commandeering a space ship, he determines he is a ‘space pirate’. All memorable pirates have really cool names. Watney, now seriously unkempt, informs NASA they are to now call him Captain Blond Beard.
The actual rescue scene is full of tension, explosions, and emotion. Overall The Martian is a great film – action balanced with comedy, believable reactions to being stranded on a different planet (remember a mission like this would probably have a lot of psycho-analysis pre-screening of candidates), and most importantly, accurate science where possible, and acceptable – if not always believable, science cheats for the sake of the film.
I fully plan to add The Martian to my movie collection as soon as possible. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t wait. Check out this film on the big screen now!