It's important to get to know your neighbors, and right now is the ideal time to acquaint yourself with our dusty planet next door. This week has been a bit of a big one for Mars. Not only has NASA just discovered flowing water on its surface, but the planet will also be hitting the big screen with Ridley Scott's upcoming science-fiction survival film, The Martian.
The film, which sees Matt Damon play Mark Watney -- a NASA astronaut stranded on the surface of Mars -- has already impressed critics and looks set to be one of the year's highest rated blockbusters. However, although The Martian certainly delivers all the thrills and excitement of a big screen extravaganza, it also approaches the concept of a blockbuster from a refreshing, and exceedingly welcome, direction. Here are the four main reasons you'll want to see The Martian this weekend:
1. A Celebration of Humanity
Cinematic blockbusters often scaffold their stories with the worst vices and desires of the human race. Whether its bank robbers, corrupt government officials or international terrorists, traditional filmmaking tells us we need an antagonist for our hero to battle. The Martian does things slightly differently. Far from concerning itself with humanity's propensity for dramatically blowing stuff up, The Martian shows our plucky race's ability to create, adapt and cultivate.
This is the aspect of The Martian which hit me the hardest. It really does make you proud to be a member of the human race. When you're dealing with the inhospitable nature of space, you do not need a cliché Machiavellian villain to court disaster. For one thing, the airless martian climate will always be inherently more terrifying than any terrestrial bad guy Hollywood can muster. That is not to suggest there is no personal drama between characters or social tension, but this is presented as an inevitable side-effect of cooperation rather than a simplistic clash of egos or agendas.
Nowadays, it's all too easy for us to get carried away by the negative aspects of our species -- whether its war, intolerance or greed. The Martian, alternatively, concentrates on our arguably more abundant, but much less publicized, qualities: our ingenuity, determination, genius and selflessness. If intelligent extra-terrestrial life does exist on Mars, they'd probably think The Martian is pro-human propaganda, but that might be exactly the thing we need at the moment.
2. A Cerebral Movie for the Millennial Audience
One of Ridley Scott's great skills as a filmmaker is weaving intellectually stimulating material -- whether its ancient history or artificial intelligence -- with compelling and exciting storytelling. The Martian certainly continues this tradition, and provides a narrative finely attuned to our modern fascination with all things 'space'.
In fact, The Martian seems perfectly positioned to resonate with the increasingly maturing 'Millennial' audience, a demographic who have been eagerly turning their eyes skyward. The last few years have shown an explosion of interest in space travel and exploration. We now live in a world where the Mars Curiosity Rover has 2.04 million twitter followers, while a group called 'I fucking love science' can boast 22 million followers on Facebook. Meanwhile, shows such as Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey sucked in over 135 million viewers worldwide, quickly becoming National Geographic's most watched show ever.
More than anything else, this proves that far from being a passive and disinterested bunch, the tech-savvy, social media-friendly Generation Y is more than willing to tackle the bigger issues of our existence in the universe. If you consider yourself among this group, then The Martian really is a movie you'll want to see.
3. It Puts the "Fuck" in "I Fucking Love Science"
As the name of the popular website mentioned above suggests, people do not seem to mind an irreverent approach to science, and this is certainly what The Martian brings to the table.
Although ostensibly a 'science-fiction,' the original book certainly treated both of these words with equal import, with author Andy Weir going to extraordinary lengths to ensure his story was scientifically accurate. The fact it first found an eager audience among the science community is a clear testament to his success in this endeavor.
Luckily, this is also something Ridley successfully carries over to the film. In The Martian you can expect real scientific principles to inform, guide and frame the fictional survival drama. In many ways it is the natural evolution of the recent trend of more accurate science-fiction movies making big waves in Hollywood. With this in mind, I can imagine The Martian will soon be mentioned in the same breath as recent blockbusters such as Gravity and Interstellar, as well as classics akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Watney 'does the math' in The Martian clip below:
But do not think for one second The Martian is some dry science lecture. The wit of Damon's Mark Watney coats the entire film in a dark, dry and surprisingly fitting atmosphere of humor. Watney is clearly a man who can find the inherent hilarity concealed within even the most dire circumstances, and it seems to the viewer that this sense of humor is just as important to his survival as his knowledge of botany.
Hidden within the dialogue about 'Sols,' 're-entry velocities,' and 'hexadecimal number systems' you'll also find laconic one liners, well-timed uses of the 'f-word' and even jokes about space pirates and the Council of Elrond -- the latter of which garnered an enthusiastic round of applause at my preview screening.
4. A Universal Cast of Stars
Of course, a funny, scientifically-accurate script is useless without the talent capable of holding the whole thing together, and The Martian certain delivers in this respect.
Veterans such as Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean will reassure fans of the book that Weir's work is in good hands, although it is the relatively new and unknown stars which steal the show. Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover in particular stand out for their authoritative, but endearing, performances as NASA underlings - illustrating how Drew Goddard's script gives even the smaller roles a lot to play with. Meanwhile, Benedict Wong, who returns to a Scott sci-fi after Prometheus, puts in a performance so convincing you'd think he's actually cameo from a NASA expert.
Then there is the crew of the Hermes (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Jessica Chastain), Watney's former martian colleagues who are now hurtling their way back towards Earth. Although not the focus of the main narrative, the crew of the Hermes also grow and develop in subtle ways through their journey. Far from explaining this in bludgeoningly obvious exposition, Scott's direction, Goddard's script and the actors' performances show this in a seamlessly convincing manner. In particular, keep an eye out for the growing affection between Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan's characters -- it is one of the most understated, and effective, big screen romances I've seen in a long time.
Perhaps most refreshingly of all, it will also become immediately clear that these roles are both cast and played without the usual nerd-clichés so common in the genre. Indeed, Scott's casting of Chastain in the role of the Hermes' commander once again reasserts him as one of the foremost casters of strong female characters. She might not fight an alien with a robotic suit, but Chastain's Commander Lewis would certainly make a certain Ellen Ripley proud.
Meet the crew in the viral teaser below:
Essentially, The Martian is the latest in a new breed of big-screen experience that rewards, instead of exploits, the audience's attention. This is provided by Scott and his cast through the skillful combination of classic storytelling techniques and a whole new and refreshing bag of filmmaking tricks.
The Martian enters theaters on October 2nd.