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A man is stranded alone in one of the most inhospitable environments in the universe. He's wounded; he doesn't have enough food or water; and his only chance for rescue is years away. Instead of breaking down and giving up, he goes to work trying to survive — and as he does so, THE MARTIAN becomes one of the most inspiring movies of the last decade.
In Ridley Scott's THE MARTIAN, Matt Damon plays botanist Mark Watney, who is part of a six-person expedition to Mars. When a storm threatens the mission, the crew scrambles to evacuate the planet's surface. Watney is seemingly killed in the process, and his teammates reluctantly escape without him. Awakening to the terrifying realization that he's the only man on the planet, Watney puts all his skills to work in an attempt to survive, contact NASA, and possibly return home. His journey is a touching and funny ode to the power of science, teamwork, and the human spirit.
We know what you're thinking: THE MARTIAN is only five years old, so it doesn't exactly meet the typical definition of a classic. Usually, we'd wait at least a decade to throw the term around, but THE MARTIAN has already become a holiday favorite thanks to its moving message. That message is also what makes it the ideal movie for right now. It argues that hard work, ingenuity and perseverance can overcome a crisis.
One thing happens several times in THE MARTIAN which turns it into an uplifting chronicle not in spite of the story's life and death stakes, but because of them. Multiple characters look at seemingly impossible tasks where failure means certain death, and they say "yeah, I can get this done."
It's like a superhero movie, which is an aspect underlined by the cast, which includes Marvel vets like Sebastian Stan and Michael Peña, in addition to Kate Mara and Jessica Chastain. When the tools used to solve a problem are math and gardening, however, rather than magic, the effect is more potent. Mark Watney grows potatoes — which sounds mundane but, on Mars, is outlandish — and his success feels like a victory for all of us.
There's also the fact that THE MARTIAN looks real. Despite being unapologetically theatrical, and relying on found-footage style taped interviews to give us a window into Mark Watney's experience, THE MARTIAN feels like a true story. It is not, of course. We've never been to Mars; no astronaut has been left behind on the surface of any moon or planet. (The movie is an adaptation of an original novel by Andy Weir, and expertly scripted by Drew Goddard.)
In part, that is because Ridley Scott is a master when it comes to depicting detail. The same attention to even minor design elements that made earlier science fiction movies like ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER so effective also comes into play here. It doesn't matter if the movie's tech looks nothing like what NASA would actually use; Scott's filmmaking gives us everything needed to believe, for two and a half hours that this story happened.
Furthermore, as Matt Damon's performance is pitched as a perfect intersection of determination, skill, and humor, it feels like he's portraying an actual astronaut. Watney's confessional video monologues help convey that sense, as we get an intimate view of his experience — and root for him to survive to see Earth once again.
As he makes his way across the surface of Mars, Mark Watney jokes about being a pirate and about technically being a colonizer, thanks to his successful cultivation of plant life. But he isn't a conqueror, and at every turn, THE MARTIAN reminds us that Watney's successes are always one wrong step away from becoming disasters.
And even with his occasional triumph, the astronaut cannot truly savor his achievements. "Everywhere I go, I'm the first," he says, while trekking across endless red sands. He's alone, and doesn't want the kingdom he has colonized. "I'm the first person to be alone on an entire planet," he says, The explorer gets to see sights that generations before him have only dreamed of, and while he is awed and respectful, his only real place is home.
As impressive as it is to see the universe, it's important to remember our place among the stars. THE MARTIAN is the rare blockbuster which values humility and humanity as highly as it does spectacle, and Mark Watney's journey might just inspire audiences to tackle their own seemingly impossible adventures, no matter how humble they may be.
All images courtesy of 20th Century Studios.
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