For her current set of slots, Bamboo has decided to go with 7-letter films starting with “M” – at least if we can ignore things like the definite article (which everybody does for alphabeticalization anyways, right?) She began with a film that I like quite a bit – 2015’s The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott.
Now, Ridley Scott has done some amazing sci-fi films in his time, Alien and Blade Runner taking the ultimate cake, but after the complete let-down of Prometheus there was certainly some concern that he could royally screw up one of the best out-of-nowhere novels in recent memory. And, I’ll be honest, when I heard that Matt Damon was cast in the lead role (I was truly hoping for an unknown to take the role, as that would have been perfect for the “everyman” story that Andy Weir wrote) I thought that we might end up watching yet another “why didn’t she run sideways?” moment in an over-the-top adaptation that abuses the spirit of the source material.
Boy, was I happy to be wrong about that.
Coming on the heels of the “most realistic space movie ever” (Gravity, and…no) and the “most scientifically accurate sci-fi film ever” (Interstellar, and while the modeling they did for the black hole was neat, the scientific validity of the film was completely destroyed by the plot relying on some sort of four-dimensional love tesseract in the middle of said black hole), The Martian didn’t quite get the same hyperbolic hype. But damned if it didn’t take both of those titles – and stick almost perfectly to the source material at that.
The Ares III crew thought they were getting a raw deal. I mean, they were only maybe halfway through their Mars mission when a massive sandstorm (yes, yes, probably more massive than the thin atmosphere of Mars can muster, granted) forced them to abandon the mission and head home. Of course, little did they know then that they’d get more than their fill of space after all because they’d be heading back to pick up their crewmate Mark Watney, whom they had left for dead as a casualty of the storm they were fleeing.
To be fair, he was hit by a large piece of debris. And to be fair, they couldn’t find him in the sandstorm following his being hit. And to be more fair, his suit’s life indicators went off. And to be super fair, their escape module was this close to tipping over in the storm, and had it toppled, they’d all have died on an inhospitable planet. And to just give them one more dose of fair, the debris that hit Watney happened to be the radio antenna for the Mars habitation they had built, so they couldn’t even radio back to make sure he didn’t pick up (nor could NASA, and therein lies a decent amount of the drama in the film). But more on them heading back later.
Watney – as you probably would have gathered from any preview, or the fact that he was being played by Matt Damon, or even the fact that there were about two hours and twenty minutes left in the film – does not die in the storm. He is stabbed by a decent chunk of antenna which knocks him out and takes out his suit’s life indicators, but seeing as the clotting blood from his wound sealed up the puncture in his suit, he still has a bit of oxygen left when he comes to. He struggles back to the “Hab”, painfully removes the makeshift spear in his abdomen and staples his wound closed (aseptic technique…not actually that crucial in a bacteria-free environment!) and basically has to figure out…how not to die.
Watney is faced with a series of problems (and that’s not counting the ones of his own making) but the primary one is this: it’s going to be another four years before the next Mars mission can possibly pick him up. Let’s ignore for the moment that NASA doesn’t know he’s alive and focus on the fact that first and foremost he has to stay that way for a very long time in a Hab built to last 30 days. Stocked with food for…well, let’s just say it’s not going to remotely stretch out that far.
Fortunately, Watney is the mission’s botanist (to study all the…plants…there…naturally…) and the timing of the mission had NASA including a special meal for the crew’s Thanksgiving – fresh potatoes. If there’s one thing any botanist worth his salt (and pepper, and ketchup, and…vicodin?) can do, it’s grow potatoes out of potatoes. Those things are like weeds. So take a bunch of sterile Martian earth (marth?) mix it up with some fertilizer and bacteria taken from the crew’s freeze-dried feces (hey, don’t say they never did anything for you!) and some excess water burned off from the hydrazine left behind in a rocket lander, plant your Thanksgiving potatoes – and you’ve got a nice little live-in garden. It’s a start.
Meanwhile, NASA (stands for “Never Address Serious Accidents”?) has been assiduously avoiding taking a close satellite look at the Ares III landing site because any images they get become public domain and they don’t want pictures of a dead freeze-dried astronaut plastered all over the internet. (See, internet? This is YOUR fault.) About two months later, one of the mission chiefs manages to get them to finally take a look…and lo and behold, the Rover has moved. It’s a scene that gives you chills, when NASA realizes that Watney is not dead, and to be honest the efforts from Earth to rescue him are in my mind at least as compelling of a component of the film as Watney’s efforts to survive.
Fortunately for NASA, their efforts are greatly aided by Watney’s brilliant decision to take a major excursion and go find and dig out the dead Mars Pathfinder unit – because it has communication capabilities. Sure enough, all that’s wrong with it is a dead battery, and that fixed Watney is able to use the camera to send images back to them, and NASA in turn is able to point the camera in any direction they choose. This works up a really rudimentary communication system, but in short order the engineers at NASA figure out how to hack Pathfinder’s code to allow text communication, and our castaway is now at basically the USENET level of technology. No animated .gifs of cats chasing squirrels are going to be coming his way, sadly, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about pop-up ads.
But, while NASA is trying to figure out the next move, a catastrophic airlock decompression (fortunately occurring while Watney is returning from outside, and therefore suited up) evacuates the air in the Hab and exposes Watney’s farm to freezing near-vacuum, killing both the plants and bacteria and subliming off the water, leaving Watney with no way to grow enough food to last him until the Ares IV mission. Desperate plans need to be drawn up, and naturally the first is a resupply rocket. But the launch window is tight, the inspections need to be shortcut, and the rocket Challengers in the atmosphere. Even worse, that was the only rocket. (Really NASA? One stinking rocket that can get a payload to Mars? This is why we can’t have nice things!)
Luckily for NASA (and perhaps even more luckily for Mark Watney), the Chinese have a single classified rocket that can also launch that payload, and in return for a Chinese seat on a future Ares mission they are willing to take all the credit for saving Watney. Shrewd call.
Meanwhile, an underling by the name of Rich Parnell at JPL has been working nights and weekends devising an alternative – rather than send a supply payload to Watney and force him to wait for the Ares IV mission to get picked up, the payload could instead be sent directly to the Hermes, the return craft that the Ares III crew are riding home at the moment. Instead of coming home, they could use a gravitational slingshot to return to Mars, where Watney could launch from the Ares IV return vehicle (it’s already there – NASA sends this stuff ahead of time to make sure it arrives safely and avoid stranding astronauts…mostly avoid, anyway – though it’s at a different site several thousand kilometers from the Ares II Hab) and rendezvous and travel back with his own crew.
NASA rejects this idea, but Boromir defies the counsel of the Council of Elrond and secretly sends the course adjustments for the Rich Parnell Maneuver to the Hermes crew, who unanimously accept the danger (and the extra nearly two years in space) to pick up the man they left behind. They effectively mutiny, executing the course correction without permission and forcing NASA’s hand. There is now no choice but for NASA to send the resupply to them, or they will all die, because they too will run out of food. Cojones abound, but it works, and they’re on their way back. And for Watney, this means something like two fewer years on Mars, so he’s probably OK with it, too.
Eventually, Watney has to make his way to the Ares IV return vehicle, strip it down to the bare bones (literally removing the nose cone and replacing it with a tarp) to get it light enough to intercept with the Hermes in a higher orbit than intended, and when the time is right, he launches.
As with most plans in the film, it doesn’t go as smoothly as one would hope. After (drastic) course corrections, the Hermes and Watney are going to be going at too great of a relative intercept velocity for the Hermes to effectively catch him.
Yeah, let me explain this one. You see, Watney’s solution to the relative intercept velocity problem is to poke a hole in the glove of his suit and use the escaping air as a thruster. He calls it “flying like Iron Man”, and it works, and it’s totally cool.
I may not be the best Googler in the world, but it appears that there are absolutely NO images of Watney flying like Iron Man on the entire internet. However, a Google Image Search for “the martian fly like iron man” does, for some unknowable reason, bring up a still from the end of The Shining. No Martian, no flying, not even any iron. But incongruous enough that I had to include it, seeing as I couldn’t procure the real thing.
Anyway, it all works, they get home safe, the end.
I don’t know what else there is to say about this film that I haven’t already. The science is actually very good, the jerry-rigged engineering is ingenious, the scavenging of just about everything useful on the entire planet is clever, the script is derived almost entirely from the book, and while obviously things are dealt with in less detail and some are skipped over, there are no added monsters or aliens or impossible love triangles to turn off the book purists. The film DOES tack on a denouement (the book ends extremely abruptly following Watney’s rendezvous with the Hermes) but it’s appropriate and tasteful and cannot possibly be complained about by a rational person. If you find that person on Facebook that complains about the ending of The Martian not being from the book, just go ahead and unfriend them. Facebook won’t even give them a notice that you’ve done it, and they won’t realize you’re gone since they’re obviously spending way too much time finding useless things to complain about. Tip for the day.