There are few things more humbling to a choreography student in the process of making a piece about solidarity and loneliness than to watch an astronaut stapling his own stomach wound together minutes after being left alone on Mars. In The Martian’s tightly knit collage of interstellar conundrums, this is just one of many scenes where Mark Watney (a sweetly-sarcastic Matt Damon) rapidly repairs the situation instead of being paralyzed by the intense realization of impending death. The Martian sets a high velocity from this early scene and follows through on its promise for the next two hours. Like all the scientists in the film, viewers are constantly on the move, eliminating time for the sadness of isolation to sink in.
It’s not a particularly maudlin viewing experience, in part because Watney’s narrative refuses to let anyone around him feel defeated. From humorously morbid computer logs to using choice expletives in an internationally broadcast messaging communication with Earth, Watney’s candid humor keeps both characters and viewers on their toes.
The movie is more than accessible – dare I say enjoyable – to a variety of audiences because of its balanced presentation of boggling explosions, brilliant fools, executive tight asses, shiny space toys and existential crises. Surprisingly, it never overindulges in its own grandiosity. Recent critically-acclaimed movies such as Gravity and Interstellar hit audiences over the head with their own pride for tackling the expansiveness of space with a manufactured grace. The Martian doesn’t let the intimidatingly foreign terrain of the unknown dominate the viewing experience; instead, it puts the story of one small man at its center and allows for a compact series of events to unfold around that point. The film actually assumes that we’re an accepting and observant audience. It’s not obsessed with its own tools, allowing moments for talking boxy robots to share the screen for a few minutes and drop half-witted comments that acknowledge their own incapacity for human emotion.
Many of the film’s softest edges come from the series of ironically comforting vistas of Mars’ foreign terrain. Just as with space suits and spaceships, these vistas aren’t laid out triumphantly as the winning science fair project of the CGI department. The landscapes let us drift from one incomparably disastrous situation to the next, mirroring Mark’s own steadiness in circumstances that would be paralyzing for the average human.
It’s easy to compare movies that exist in space because of their shared requirement to deal with existential questions, but The Martian has its own agenda and somehow manages to keep itself to a refreshingly compact group of characters.
Jeff Daniels appears in a familiar costume, bearing a desperation for authority eerily reminiscent of his character Will McEvoy in HBO’s The Newsroom. Unfortunately, without Aaron Sorkin’s rapid writing, he comes off as just your average executive trying to exercise more power than anyone wants to admit he has.
A notable element of The Martian is its lack of an antagonist. There are no humans or even bug-eyed aliens actively trying to sabotage Watney’s return to planet Earth. The conflicts stem from Mother Nature herself, and humanity’s challenge in asserting its dominance where it naturally doesn’t make sense to survive.
Without an antagonist, there is still plenty of conflict, and time flies as Watney gets closer and closer to a return trip home. The film passes easily, but didn’t make me shudder out of fear of the unknown future in the way that Interstellar did (even though I watched Gravity on a flight last year and should probably give it a second chance, I’m not planning on it anytime soon). But perhaps that is the film’s greatest blessing: the absence of an antagonist and the absence of fear. The astronauts face terrifying situations throughout the film, but what actually helps us leave this world for two hours and drift willingly into theirs is that they don’t allow this fear of the unknown to cloud our perception with overbearing emotional experiences. It’s honest about its own existence, which the emptiness of space should incline us to admit about ourselves more often. We watch the story unfold, because after all, that’s all a movie is: a story.