The other day, I overheard a family talking about how NASA is looking for the next generation of astronauts. I live in Huntsville, Alabama, birthplace of the Saturn V and home to lots of rocket scientists, so this conversation didn’t surprise me. The father asked his tweens, “Do you think you could figure out how to live on Mars?” I didn’t catch his kids’ replies. The night before I had watched The Martian and wondered if the next generation of astronauts would look to characters like Mark Watney to see if they had the right stuff.
In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars when his crew makes an emergency evacuation. The crew, NASA and the whole world believes he is dead. Realizing how stacked the odds are against him, Watney moves forward trying make enough food to survive on and find a way to contact NASA. When NASA realizes that Watney is still alive, they get to work trying to make contact and the whole world unites trying to bring him home.
Damon’s performance as the stranded Watney is entertaining, thrilling and educational. He leads the film well, doing his lonely time surviving on the red planet. While I imagine being alone on a planet to be a form of quiet meditation and crushing loneliness, Mark keeps it light, especially when the various cameras recording his every move for data. He informs us what he is doing and why, which helps the story progress, usually with notes of light sarcasm. I wonder if NASA rejects astronauts if they are too serious or melancholy for their own good and selects those that can cope through making jokes.
When things go wrong for Watney, they are devastating blows, and Damon portrays those well too. His first scene back at the habitat alone is an impromptu surgery to remove shrapnel from his abdomen. It can be painful to watch. When an accident takes out the crops his life was depending on, and makes the habitat dangerously unstable, the psychological blow to Watney is plain to see. It’s a wonder this man doesn’t crack under the pressure and constant set backs.
Back on Earth, we see the team at NASA working to help Watney. Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is the director of NASA, who seems to cast this aura of doom and gloom with his authority. Around him are notable underlings played by Kristin Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean who try to remain optimistic and make great strides in rescuing Watney. I enjoyed Donald Glover’s small role as an eccentric astrophysicist who comes up with a brilliant Hail Mary sort of plan.
Including Damon’s nomination for best actor, The Martian is nominated for seven Academy Awards. The other awards include best adapted screenplay, production design, sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects and best picture. I feel that Damon is simply too lighthearted in this role to win over juggernauts like DiCaprio or Redmayne, but I doubt The Martian will leave Oscar night empty handed.
Overall, I believe that The Martian is a wonderful film worthy of its Oscar nominations. It reminds me of Apollo 13 with a lighter approach. If anyone out there really wants to part of the next generation of astronauts, I would highly recommend they see The Martian (and Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and Gravity just to name a few). It’s mind boggling to think about all the intense life or death problems real astronauts need to be able to solve quickly and with very little to work with. Well done astronauts of the past, future and fiction.
“Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”