I recently saw the film “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott. The movie is an adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same title. The protagonist of the story is Mark Watney, an astronaut on the Ares III mission to Mars. His crew of six encounters a dangerous storm while exploring the planet, which leads their commander to order a retreat back to their ship for an emergency evacuation.
On the way back to the ship, Watney is struck by debris and falls over unconscious. The crew is unable to locate him and wait out the storm which threatens to tip over their spacecraft, the Hermes, which is their only way home. Watney wakes up hours later, alive and able to make it to the shelter that allowed the crew to live on Mars after their ship landed. He has food, water, oxygen and an optimally pressurized environment, but his crewmates are long gone.
“The Martian” is a visual experience that includes the pivotal points of the novel while smoothing over unnecessary literary detail. It’s safe to say that someone who has never cracked open the book could easily understand and appreciate the film.
What’s so remarkable about the film is that it takes an internal narrative and communicates it primarily through scene-setting. The opening scene shows Watney getting hit by debris in the storm and his crewmates making an emergency takeoff. Even that scene could have had less dialogue or been shorter and still told the story of how this man was left on Mars. The text creates tension by talking around obstacles, describing system failures with jargon before translating to the layman that the situation, summed up, is one of life or death. In the film, one doesn’t need to imagine how vast and featureless Mars is; the viewer is there with Watney, seeing the starry cosmos through Mars’ thin atmosphere at night, absent a moon.
It was a different sort of movie to see in 3-D. Maybe I was just seated too close to the front, but rather than utilizing the format to have things leap out, the movie was layered, creating perspective. One moment the viewer would be among Watney’s makeshift greenhouse inside the Hab, and the next one would be eyeing a flat wasteland, no visual obstructions impeding the distant horizon.
It’s easier to be an onlooker than to imagine what it must be like to be Watney. To identify with him is to sympathetically experience acute agoraphobia. We can travel most anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Watney can radio in and receive words, but he is months away from his crew and years from civilization.
The idea that civilized structure and creature comforts are limited is an uncomfortable one for most first worlders, especially Americans, including me. Watney didn’t live off the land, because there was no land to live off of. He was on Mars because he was smart, innovative, educated, trained, cool- headed and independent. Of course his situation was unplanned and not ideal, but he wasn’t accidentally on Mars, he was mistakenly left behind.