In The Martian, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who has been stranded on Mars, after a sudden dust storm forces his team to evacuate, and he must figure out how to survive until he can be rescued.
Based on the initial description of the film, I approached The Martian cautiously, imagining that it might fall into the traditional “deserted-island” archetype, in which a character, trapped within a hostile environment, struggles to survive while contending with the psychological effects of being cut off from human contact. That type of movie, while interesting in its own ways, has a tendency to be dark and intense–not what I want to see over my holiday break. In other words, I did not want to see Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball.
But The Martian is actually an optimistic and spirit-affirming film that demonstrates the power of human determination and ingenuity, and it does this through two significant elements.
First, it does not revolve solely around Watney’s efforts to survive; it also depicts the efforts of NASA to organize a rescue mission. So the focus of the film becomes how societies can come together and cooperate for a greater purpose, rather than the isolating effects of being separated from society.
Second, Watney is not a dark, brooding figure; instead, he is a lighthearted and fun character, who uses humor, clever quips, and the occasional burst of crude language to keep his spirits up, in the process preventing us from feeling depressed or overwhelmed by the difficult circumstances of the film. The humor of Matt Damon’s character is what makes The Martian more than your standard inspirational film: it is in fact a legitimately funny movie.
Together, these elements ensure that The Martian never once falls into the intensity of the typical survival movie. We have no dark, psychological elements or moments of total despair. There are challenges, definitely, but the characters move on and work hard to fix the problems confronting them. Damage to Watney’s habitation unit is repaired. Alternate methods are found when NASA’s supply probe fails to launch. New orbital pathways are recalculated. Human ingenuity, practicality, and optimism, it seems, can overcome nearly any obstacle.
What is perhaps more significant is that Mark Watney’s story of survival attracts the attention of people from around the world. Everyone seems to be rooting for him, not just in the United States, but in Britain and France and China as well. The Chinese space agency even plays a role in the rescue effort. So this is not an American story, but a human story, in which anyone may find inspiration.
On a broader level, The Martian emphasizes the ability of space exploration to make us believe in something greater than ourselves. It has immense power to unify us, regardless of political, cultural, or nationalistic divisions. It creates heroes that we can look up to as embodying our very best selves.
The Martian wants us to believe that our future will be bright, if we trust in our ingenuity and our ability to cooperate. Whether or not this is true, we shall see as we move forward. But if you would like to see a vision of the future in which the human spirit wins out through the optimistic application of science and knowledge, you definitely need to see this film. Unfortunately, it is no longer out in theaters, but make sure to check it out when it’s available on DVD or a streaming service.