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October 8, 2015

New film The Martian is a surprisingly human tale

Last Friday, Ridley Scott’s The Martian premiered to high anticipation from fans of the novel, as well as high predicted box-office sales. Going into the movie, it’s easy to mistake it for a typical survivor story where, despite the ridiculous odds, the protagonist still manages to pull through. Instead, The Martian offers the story of a witty botanist-astronaut-farmer bent on survival; refreshingly different from the typical male lead.

The movie opens on a scene of a crew of astronauts joking with each other while exploring a desolate-looking Mars. When a storm unexpectedly hits, they’re forced to leave one of their crew behind: He is swallowed up and presumed dead. This scene is mediocre—to say the least—thanks to unconvincing acting. It seems that the presumed death of their fellow astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), barely fazes them as they whizz away from Mars, leaving their fellow astronaut stranded.

After this scene, I was not only extremely bored but also had little hope for the film, since it seemed to already be filling the role of the clichéd survival story where one man, against all odds, lives by nothing other than his pluck and bravery. For a while, the film followed convention but entertained regardless. The moment that Watney realizes he is doomed to spend several years on Mars, he gets to work figuring out how to survive with the assorted supplies available to him—the most entertaining example being his own feces. It’s captivating to watch Watney transform from victim of a freak storm to the rational, cunning castaway who “colonizes” Mars, surviving on his knowledge of botany, of all things. 

Watching him build this life for himself did play into the survivalist movie cliché, but did so in a smart and refreshing way. The Martian departed from trope in its message of the true power of human contact. During the first scene, it was unexpected how blasé Watney seemed about his time on Mars, especially since he was stuck on a planet by himself. He worked furiously to survive, laughed, and made jokes at the camera while apparently unfazed by isolation. However, as the movie went on, it became clear that Watney craved human contact.

Further, the audience saw that everywhere around Earth, people are rooting for Watney’s survival. While he is very alone on Mars, his entire home planet is rooting for him to return alive. This is not only a beautiful thing to watch, but is very different from other survival movies, where protagonists are left to fend for themselves, and other people don’t play as much of a role in their safe return. In short, The Martian differs from the survivor trope by dealing with the ideas of human loneliness and human support.

That being said, it’s clear that The Martian isn’t for everyone. At a little over two hours with very little action until the end, those looking for a fast-paced movie or a classic story of survival should look elsewhere. Despite my initial skepticism, I managed to enjoy myself and get lost in not only the science behind Watney’s survival, but also the beauty that exists when a large body of people work together to retrieve a man from hundreds of millions of miles away.

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