Martians have been invading us for longer than most of us can remember; but when did we invade them? Or when did we become certain that there were no Martians to invade or be invaded by? The time setting of the story told by Ridley Scott’s The Martian is scrupulously unmentioned in the film or in the Andy Weir book it is based on, but nerdy fans have figured it out from internal evidence centring on the astral timing of Thanksgiving. It is 2035. Weir has confirmed that this is correct, but he may be joking.
He was more serious when he admitted that the violent sandstorm that opens the film, stranding Matt Damon from his astronaut colleagues, causing them to assume he is dead and to leave him behind, is a fictional convenience rather than a scientific probability. Weir said he knew the air of Mars was too thin for such events to occur. I wasn’t too shocked to learn of this departure from realism, because I was still meditating on the implausibility not of Damon’s being in danger but of his survival. He is blown away by the storm, but – more seriously – an antenna from a reception device at the base has pierced his spacesuit, so the planet’s unlivable atmosphere should almost immediately do away with him. But no. He falls face down, and the angle of the antenna, in the words of the book, puts ‘a lot of torque on the hole in the suit’, making ‘a weak seal’. The weak seal is strengthened by the copious blood from the wound and Damon is able to get back into the pressurised zone of the base, remove the spike that is sticking into him, clean up his wound and close it with a few stapled stitches. Painful, but not hard for a practical man. I don’t know whether Weir and Scott were thinking of medical realities here, but I was thinking of luck and plot design.
The same goes for the end of the movie, when Damon is literally snatched out of space by one of his colleagues – this information will spoil things for you only if you are able to believe, after the scene I have just described, that this story could in any way turn out badly. You don’t build up to an elaborate climax only to abandon it to misfortune. Will the rescuing spaceship make contact with the man to be rescued, as he floats first in a capsule and then finds himself spinning loose in the skimpy air, or will their trajectories, after all a matter of very rough calculation, even with all the maths in the world at the mission’s disposal, just not come close enough? Don’t worry.
Apart from its beginning and end, though, which are respectively clunky and boring, The Martian is a pretty gripping movie, and for all sorts of rather strange reasons. The first is the role Damon is given and the way he plays it. We have seen him recently in a spacesuit in Interstellar but I picture him mostly as Jason Bourne, unfazed not only by serial attempts on his life but also by the news that his mind is not his own. In The Martian his emotional range is even smaller, and if he worries at all about his predicament – as distinct from seeing that it needs fixing and must be fixable – the only sign is that his terrible jokes get worse from time to time. He remembers that he has parents who may worry about him only after two months or so of being stranded. His verbal scale is quite narrow. When his last hope of being rescued seems to have vanished – so near and yet so far – he says: ‘Well, shit.’ When he realises he will have to use his memories of high-school chemistry to manufacture water he says he is going to ‘science the shit out of this’. His literal shit comes in handy too, for fertilising the potatoes he is growing on infertile Mars. He knows he needs to survive for four years before the next manned excursion to the planet.
This lunatic no-nonsense practicality becomes appealing once you realise there isn’t going to be anything else. It feels like an avant-garde escape from ‘psychology’. Damon speaks some lines that might suggest he knows how strange his situation is but his manner takes the strangeness out of everything. When he grows a beard it’s not because he is unable to shave but because he likes to think of himself as a pirate, and the first picture of himself he relays to Earth shows him making the trademark gesture of the Fonz in Happy Days.
The man on Mars has no angst of any kind; he just has a problem or two. They don’t have angst on Earth either, but they have politics and they don’t know which stories to tell. The director of Nasa (Jeff Daniels) at first announces that Damon is dead because he doesn’t want to say that the crew might have left a living man behind. The crew flying home don’t know what is happening on Earth because no one is telling them and it will take them ten months to get back. Then a camera shows some sort of action on Mars, solar panels being moved, bits of broken tents being put together. This must be Damon at work but there is still no way of getting in touch with him. The new story has to be that he is alive, but Daniels decides not to tell the crew on the spaceship this in order not to worry them. The truth must be that he doesn’t like telling anybody anything. Various interests compete on the ground and are represented by various stars or perhaps sub-planets: Daniels, Kristen Wiig as his PR person, Chiwetel Ejiofor as director of the space mission, Sean Bean as another mission director. For good measure the returning spaceship has Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara on it. Moral and strategic questions that often occupy whole movies and volumes of philosophy are dealt with in the brisk way that Damon sorts out his potatoes. Should Nasa spend a fortune to save just one man? Can it be done? Should the crew of the spaceship disobey orders in order to go back for their companion? Even if this is mutiny? Is it all right to bring the Chinese in if they have the space machinery the US can’t build fast enough? How do the Chinese feel about collaborating with the US? The answer to these questions, after they have been diligently floated is: no question, go for it. The movie doesn’t risk the overt theory of such behaviour as the novel does: ‘Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.’ But that is what the movie’s plot says. The reason the effect is not sentimental – well, not only sentimental – is that the movie allows us constantly to think of alternative attitudes and solutions, to indulge all our wise and gloomy thoughts about what our basic instincts usually look like, and resolutely goes its own way.
This is one of the film’s challenges to us, but it is not where its energy lies. This is in its eager closeness to adventure games and puzzles. When Damon first manages to rig up a means of communication with the Earth, he has to set letters in the soil at appropriate distances from each other for a circling camera to read them. There isn’t room for a full alphabet, so he has to work out a code. It takes them some time to crack the code on Earth but they do. And more dramatically, the real hero of the movie turns out to be a researcher at Nasa (Donald Glover) who has a new plan for connecting with Mars and Damon. What if, rather than sending out supplies and waiting for the next mission, or sending out a far too expensive new mission, it was possible to load up the returning spaceship with stuff and send it back to Mars using Earth’s gravity for an extra bit of propulsion? It would mean the crew would have to stay in space another two years, and still have to fish Damon out of the sky, but they’re game. They feel bad about having left him in the first place. Excitement in the film collects around this idea, I think because it is a real idea, because it asks us to imagine something other than common sense as a solution to our ills. Its craziness feels like an escape, not only from reason but from optimism. The plan is called Elrond, but very few people in the movie have ever heard of The Lord of the Rings.