by Jeff Cunningham
This past weekend, The Martian debuted in theaters to much fanfare, and the Cliff’s Notes version of this is: it’s not undeserved. The film adaptation of Andy Weir’s runaway bestselling novel tells the harrowing tale of one man’s endurance, ingenuity and determination to survive as a lone astronaut accidentally left for dead on the surface of Mars. With limited food and supplies and no way to reach Earth, astronaut Mark Watney must make equipment meant to last only 30 days keep him alive for over a year until the next crew can reach him, using only his wits. It’s a tale of survival against impossible odds, like Apollo 13— or, for that matter, the Firefly episode “Out of Gas.” Coincidentally, one of the NASA managers tasked with coordinating the interplanetary rescue effort is played by Chewitel Ejiofor, better known to fans of Serenity as The Operative.
The film itself has been pretty well hyped by 21st-Century FOX and eagerly awaited by the novel’s many fans. The good news is, it essentially lived up to said hype. Being an avid reader myself, comparisons to the book are inevitable. In this case, though, we have one of the rare instances where a film adaptation may not necessarily improve on its source material, but does an excellent job of bringing it to life and telling it in a way that novels often can’t.
Weir’s novel has received a great deal of praise not only for its uncommon scientific accuracy, but for just how well he nailed the culture of NASA– a sentiment expressed by many astronauts, technicians and managers within the agency. The film, in like manner, had this in spades– albeit a far more sanitized version of NASA with sleek glass-and-steel Silicon Valley SpaceX-chic decor instead of the drab, lowest-bidder aesthetic it now sports in buildings older than most of the moviegoers in the audience (I guess they got a crucial shot of needed funding, and had enough left over for restoration and renovations).
For all the ribbing the internet gave him, Matt Damon acted the everlasting goh-se out of the leading role. He really conveyed the swell of emotions that overcome Watney when he finally (spoiler) re-establishes contact with Mission Control on Earth after two months– in ways that I couldn’t appreciate and hadn’t occurred to me in reading the same scenes of the book.
I do have one major nitpick, though, in their treatment of a certain climactic spacewalk. Two characters swapped roles in this critical scene, which was clearly done for artistic license and to heighten the drama, because it would just never happen among astronauts– a group of men and women who are the very definition of professional and not letting one’s sentiments or emotions cloud one’s judgement. Also, the desperate tactic the protagonist eventually resorts to is decided against in the book for the exact same reasons they gave in both the book and the film: it just wouldn’t work, and was an absolutely terrible, irresponsibly dangerous idea that was only suggested in half-jest for the sake of gallows’ humor.
That aside, what really shines most of all in The Martian is, well, Mars. I’m known for looking down on people who see the film with no intent of reading the book, and half of my social media posts are bemoaning the decline in our collective literacy and reading level. And yet, I must concede before irrefutable silver-screen evidence that the film portrays the breathtaking beauty and majesty of an alien world in ways that the book just did not. The crowning scene, for me, was a scene that may have been intended to be more of a one-off, when Damon’s character transmits a “just in case” message to Houston of a few short words to tell his parents in the event that he should die on Mars. It’s brief, it’s simple (what he’s able to get out without choking up), and yet surprisingly poignant in its sincerety– another credit to his acting– that he had no regrets, saying “I love what I do… being a part of something greater than myself, something beautiful.”
Underlying Watney’s humility is what I’ve become convinced is the true reason why the novel and film have been such a runaway hit. The past few years have seen a veritable glut of superhero action films that all try to relate the protagonist to the audience as someone thrust into a larger conflict upon gaining special powers and abilities. By contrast, Watney’s saving grace is not superpowers, nor wealth, nor even any kind of self-made abilities like mastering arcane martial arts– except, that is, education and academic aptitude. His years of studying the sciences– chemistry, botany, etc.– that most of us don’t have enough interest in to pay attention to in high school, much less study seriously at a university or even teach ourselves with the wealth of resources available online. Maybe we lack confidence (“Man, I could never do stuff like that thing he does where he makes drinking water from rocket fuel..”), or we’re just making excuses (“I work a part-time service job and don’t have the time…”).
Whatever the case, reading and/or watching The Martian makes us (or at least me) truly regret not investing more in ourselves (Disclosure: While I have a degree in rocket science, I’ve always hated chemistry, and nearly failed it twice). That’s because while Damon’s astronaut character doesn’t sling webs or fly, he does perform feats no less incredible, like creating the first farm on Mars from odds and ends and modifying machinery to do things they weren’t designed for, that are completely, absolutely attainable for the rest of us. Everyone wants to be Batman, but anyone can be Mark Watney if they will pay the price of evenings and an occasional weekend.
At this point, it seems fitting to confess that my being in Take Back the Sky with Chris and company is, at least in small part, my way of confronting that: of standing up to do something and make a difference– or, of course, “aim to misbehave” as a certain mission commander of fiction once said. It’s not going to shake the world to its foundations, but the reason we and more and more Browncoats just can’t let this rest is because we know it’s just right that the first private spaceship to carry astronauts should be named after Serenity, another private ship. With the first space shuttle, the proud work of an open and free government, being named after the Federation-built Enterprise by popular demand, it’s only fitting that SpaceX’s new Dragon ship be named Serenity to mark the passing of the torch from those who blazed the trail to us, the people, so that we may follow– after all, that’s why NASA was founded: in the hopes that they’d succeed in making themselves obsolete, because we’d be able to go out to the black on our own, like the independent, free-spirited crew of Firefly.
Help us do that by signing our new petition online, then take a moment to write a brief note to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. She’s a fan of the show, and she’ll probably get a real kick out of it– especially if you were to include a leaf in the envelope as a “leaf on the wind,” as many of us have been doing.
See you on launch day!