Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Blues for a Red Planet

Saving Matt Damon in The Martian.

★ ★ ★ 1/2  The Martian. Written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir. Directed by Ridley Scott. 

About twenty years ago, the late Carl Sagan, during a speech at Cornell, likened some natural phenomenon to “coupled differential equations”. When the students hissed at this reference to their math homework, Sagan remarked, “Why all the hissing? One day differential equations will save your life.”

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the fictional realization of Sagan’s prediction. Based on the bestselling page-turner by Andy Weir, it concerns Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an American astronaut who accidentally gets left behind on Mars after an emergency evacuation by his crew. Literally the only man left on a barren, freezing planet, Watney has only three months of supplies but a three year wait before a rescue. After making the conscious decision to try not to die, he declares his only option: “I have to science the shit out of this.”

  And “science the shit out of it” he does. Weir’s book is a throwback to the heyday of “hard” science fiction—the kind that reveled in the physics and chemistry of their stories. In it, we learn how to make water from jet fuel; we explore the botany of raising crops in otherwise lifeless soil, and the astrodynamics of sending humans and machines to other planets. That Weir makes all these technicalities not only palatable, but gripping, is a real triumph. 

For the movie, director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Prometheus) is wise to stay close to Weir’s winning formula. But the film is better than the book in one important respect. Weir is not an accomplished prose stylist, and The Martian is his first published novel. While engrossed in the story, this reader sometimes had to remind himself this story was set on an alien planet, because Weir offers precious few details on how it actually looks and feels to be on Mars. Now that we are roving Mars by robotic proxy, it’s not enough to be vague about all that. Mars is no longer just an astronomical object—it’s a piece of turf, as real as Yuma or Marrakech.

  What’s the sky like there? The stars? The sunset? What’s the sound of Martian wind from inside Watney’s lab? What’s it like to get all that fine Martian dust in the crotch of your space suit? Such are the kind of impressions that make a story vivid, and alas, they seem beyond Weir’s skills as a storyteller. Visual flair is in Scott’s wheelhouse, however, and The Martian is replete with the kind of details that make Mars come to life as the implacable antagonist it is supposed to be.

        No surprise that Matt Damon is a fun and appealing choice in the lead. As written, Mark Watney might as well have been designed for Damon to play. Other casting choices—such as Jeff Daniels as the Machiavellian NASA administrator—feel predictable. That a woman with the apparent youth of Jessica Chastain would be selected as mission Commander is hard to swallow, however. More likely a far more seasoned astronaut—female or male—would be chosen for that job.

  The Martian is hard science fiction, but it stretches the limits of disbelief in one respect. The premise that the United States of America, by what seems to be a few years in the future, would actually agree to fund the manned exploration of Mars is utter fantasy. In a time when the US Congress can’t agree to fund the government for more than a few months at a time, and a leading Presidential candidate declares evolution and the Big Bang theories “of the devil”, it seems almost quaint to expect our fractured nation to back a program of pure exploration that would last a decade and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. That, of course, would take patience, and vision, and the kind of trust in Big Science that we clearly lost a long time ago.

  More likely, a real “Martian” would not be named “Mark”, but “Chen”. And it would not be the Chinese space agency lending a small assist to NASA, but the other way around. That is, unless somebody finds a way to “science the shit out of” our national plunge into stupidity. 
© 2015 Nicholas Nicastro

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