One of the joys of movie-going is occasionally getting to experience a film with an audience for which it was tailor-made. There was, for instance, the evening I spent watching Rambo: First Blood Part II in a small theater just outside the gates of Fort Stewart. As the lights came up, you could hear the sounds of soldiers chanting “USA! USA!” resounding in the air.
The audience at the screening of The Martian this past week, which apparently included every instructor from nearby Georgia Tech, was a bit less boisterous, but no less enthused to be there. This was evidenced as the credits began to roll and all these professorial types rose to their feet, nodded their heads vigorously, and politely intoned to one another, “Good enough. Good enough.”
No doubt this collegiate stamp of approval was given in appreciation for how well director Ridley Scott has handled his film adaptation of Andy Weir’s insanely popular bestseller, The Martian. Adhering closely to the novel, the film chronicles a near-future manned mission to Mars which ends disastrously and leaves astronaut Mark Watney abandoned and alone on the red planet’s surface. Basically, it’s a standard man-against-nature story with the catch being that the nature part of the equation this time around is an alien one.
But that setup isn’t why so many eggheads (and most everyone else for that matter) have championed the book. No, what has really attracted so many to the story is the way Weir keeps things entertaining even when going into minute scientific detail to explain how it’s possible for one individual to survive on a barren world for years. For the sake of time and story flow, Scott’s movie necessarily skims over a lot of the novel’s science stuff (sorry, no paragraphs of dialog explaining the chemical makeup of human excrement), yet it never feels dumbed down. And that, no doubt, is why so many of the film-going faculty in attendance gave the film a hearty “good enough.” When Hollywood doesn’t suck the brains out of a story, there is cause to rejoice.
The non-science aspects of the film aren’t too shabby either. Despite the fact that a lot of the runtime of the movie consists of Matt Damon talking into a recorder while most everyone else stares at computer screens, the film never feels slow. Damon and the rest of the familiar faces turn in steady performances with no real sour notes to speak of. And while the climatic rescue attempt, complete with its requisite Hollywood demanded changes, may feel a little lackluster compared to other recent space movies, the film’s coda punctuates the fact that the story was never really about action anyway.
While not as exhaustive in detail as the novel on which it’s based, what The Martian celebrates is human ingenuity and the application of knowledge. And yet, for such a love letter to science, the truly surprising thing is how one of the underlying themes of the story has no scientific basis at all: In a pivotal scene in the movie, we see the folks back at NASA engaged in the inevitable discussion as to whether or not one human life is worth all of the risk and monumental expense it will take to save it. The answer is an almost unanimous, “Of course.”
But why? There’s certainly no scientific reason to reach such a conclusion. Even the Church herself acknowledges that sometimes one can choose not to try and forestall an impending death if the procedures required to do so are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.” So why bother trying to save Watney?
Because, at the heart of The Martian, underneath all its scientific trappings, is a truth that only God can bring us, the truth that every individual human life has a unique dignity, and when we do our best to save one of those lives, we are saving a little bit of ourselves in the process. The characters in The Martian seem to intuit this, and that’s why they turn all their scientific skills and knowledge to the task of retrieving Watney from Mars. And that’s what makes The Martian resonate so deeply, not just that it celebrates science, but that it celebrates science in the service of the human person. And that’s a celebration worth having.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.