The Martian hits the big screen this weekend, and on first glance, it's the typical adventure/rescue flick with a little desperate survival thrown in for good measure. Look a little closer, however, and you'll quickly realize that this is much more than that:
It's not a white knight riding to the aid of a powerless damsel, or an action hero surviving using brute strength and willpower. It's a film based on the innate human desire to help each other, no matter what, and it has the potential to be absolutely glorious.
Damon in Distress
Let's start with a look at our hero: Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon). Unsurprisingly, this isn't a character who is going to collapse under the strain of being abandoned on Mars (if he was, there wouldn't be much of a film!). However, nor is he your traditional action-hero-style survivalist. There's no hunting or self defense on a barren planet, and even if there was, this isn't Armageddon; bar brawlers and off-the-grid cowboys don't make it on NASA missions.
He's not going to pieces (although he tends to swear a lot), he's not giving up, but he's not blustering through it punching things and loudly wishing for a sexy female Martian, either. He's a giant nerd who manages to reference Dungeons & Dragons and Marvel comics while attempting to make it through years alive on Mars.
It's a breath of rescue mission fresh air, but it's only the tip of the incredibly diverse and balanced iceberg that is The Martian.
Women in Command
The original crew of this Ares landing includes two women, which is impressive enough in and of itself. Making it just that little bit more interesting is the fact that one of them, Lewis (Jessica Chastain), is in command of the mission. The really fantastic part, however, is that this isn't a big deal at any point throughout the novel (and hopefully won't be in the film).
She's not the only woman in a position of power, either. Johanssen (Kate Mara) is another astronaut, and again, treated absolutely no differently to any other crew member. Even when life and death decisions are made concerning the crew, Johanssen isn't given any kind of preferential treatment, nor does she loudly proclaim that she doesn't need it.
Back on terra firma, there are plenty more women in control. Annie (Kristen Wiig) stands in the spotlight as NASA's Media Director, involved with every major part of the decision making process. Alongside her sits Mindy (Mackenzie Davies), a brilliant NASA employee who is increasingly frustrated at being under-utilized during this project.
At one point, Mindy is described as wearing sweatpants -- not as a mark of her attractiveness, but to emphasize how hard she is working and how far out the window standard operating procedure has flown. We don't hear about their hair, their lips, or their figures (other than Johansson being fleetingly described as small). It's clear that the author simply didn't think that the way they look was particularly important, and that's wonderfully refreshing.
Sadly, it seems that flight psychologist Dr. Irene Shields and incisive reporter Cathy didn't make it off the pages, but this still leaves an impressive roster of strong women in the film.
A Love Story Free Zone
Another welcome change for a major Hollywood movie is that there is essentially no romance in The Martian. Obviously, Watney is out of luck there, given that he is marooned on Mars, but there's no real side arc about any other pair falling for each other. There are some sweet moments between married couples, and at least one relationship is formed over the course of the book, but because it doesn't have much of an impact on the plot, little time is devoted to it.
Which is perfect. There is more than enough human interest and emotion in the story without needing to add unnecessary focus on love or romance, but it isn't completely ignored (which would be unrealistic).
Whitewashed or Diverse?
While the film has some critics claiming whitewashing in the film, particularly over the character of Mindy Park (who was intended as a Korean character, according to this interview with the author for Real Science on Fake Mars), others are applauding it for its diverse cast.
Stars including Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover join the cast, alongside smaller names such as Yang Lui, Xue Xuxing and Bruce Ng. There are also several non-American white actors in the mix, with Romanian, Norwegian and British actors taking on major roles.
I'm thrilled to see a film depicting a more diverse NASA, even if there's a character or two who didn't translate perfectly from the page. Seeing a range of different races and nationalities represented (when that isn't some kind of central message of the story) is most definitely a big step in the right direction for Hollywood.
Nerds to the Rescue
The final twist on the classic search-and-rescue formula comes with the distinct lack of a military presence. There are no muscle-bound soldiers striding in to save the day, no one parachutes anywhere, there are no over-the-top Army men barking commands. For once, the nerds get to ride in and save the day.
The book constantly references nerd culture; as well as Watney's contributions, many other characters refer to Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek and Linux. The characters talk about how nerdy they are, and the science side of Watney's time on Mars isn't skipped over.
It's also not a solo rescue mission. This is a story where one lone heroic figure isn't setting out to save the day, but where groups of people come together to try to help a man in trouble. It's more realistic (especially given the fact that he's on another planet!), but it's also something we rarely see in film.
A Rare Combination
All of this seems just a little too balanced to be true; a Hollywood movie where diverse nerds come together to try and save the day? A film where romance takes a back seat, and an action film without military violence?
Part of this may simply be convenient, as Weir admits that he created an intentionally diverse crew to make it simple for the reader to tell the characters apart. However, I like to believe that a large part of it reflects studio awareness that audiences are getting sick and tired of movies that don't reflect the variety of the world off-screen. Tropes and cliches are being increasingly called out, and fans are clamoring for films that represent them.