We live in an age of progress. Each year, a new app, device, or vehicle is released that affects our daily lives and in some cases changes our culture forever. New discoveries about the world we live and how we can improve it (or save it) are made every day, and the competitive nature of capitalism mixed with altruism ensures that the drive to continue to push forward with progress is perpetual. Yet, as many pessimistic pundits perceive, our culture has very much turned insular, concerned with our selves and how we can improve our quality of life. The pioneering spirit of humanity has dwindled, and only recently has the flame for exploration and discovery been rekindled. The popularity of NASA and scientist celebrities like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye have steadily increased, but leading the goodwill campaign for space exploration is good old film and television.
In much the same way that the original Star Trek series inspired real life NASA engineers, shows like Cosmos and movies likeInterstellar strive to make space a destination again. On the face of it, an outer space disaster movie would seem to be the antithesis of stoking a desire for space exploration (in the way that 2013’s Gravity wrung as much fear out of the potential hazards as possible), but that is exactly what has happened. The Martian presents the experience of what it’d be like to be stranded on a desolate planet and surviving until you can find a way back home using your skills and strength of will alone, and is so exhilarating, you’ll want to sign up to be an astronaut as soon as it ends.
Based on a book by Andy Weir (himself a former computer programmer with scientist/engineer parents; The Martian is his debut novel), screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Ridley Scott infuse the story of astronaut Mark Watney’s (Matt Damon) accidental stranding on Mars with a large amount of humor, while never undercutting or skimping on the drama. The film has a spirit of determination that allows for grit and sorrow but never despair. Although the scenes of Mark learning how to farm and move around on Mars are akin to an interplanetary Cast Away, the threat of crushing loneliness and fear is never allowed to take over. Mark meets each new challenge almost as a dare, and when he does have a setback he picks himself up right away.
One neat trick that most audiences going blind into the film may not expect is that The Martian is actually three films in one. If Damon is starring in a Martian Cast Away, then the astronaut crew that left him behind are starring in a blend of The Right Stuff and 2001. Their return journey to Earth (and subsequent rescue mission back to Mars) takes place on board the Hermes, a craft that is one of the biggest triumphs in production design this year. Much has been made of director Scott’s uneven track record, as he is a director whose good films are directly proportional to the quality of his scripts (and The Martian is a cracking script, in case that wasn’t clear). But his talent as a visual stylist can’t be overstated, and the scenes on the Hermes (as well as the opening Martian storm sequence) are breathtaking, using the medium of native stereo 3D to create an astounding and gorgeous landscape. The film is set in a near future that presents technologies and devices that clearly don’t exist yet, but feel so incredibly real and matter of fact in the moment that I had a hard time telling what was science fiction.
Grounding the film even further in a tangible reality is the third “film-within-a-film” set in and around NASA, a mash-up of The West Wing and Apollo 13. Allowing powerhouse actors such as Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels to trade quips and theories with people like SNL‘s Kristen Wiig and Community‘s Donald Glover lends a light touch to the drama on Earth, giving the mission control scenes less of a dire tone and more a sense of the urgency and fun of solving a problem. It is here that many of the political and moral obstacles to rescuing Mark are put in place, and remarkably these are presented fairly rather than by any mustache twirling villainous suited characters. After all, this film came not to bury humanity, but to praise it.
It isn’t until well into the movie that you realize how inspiring it is, despite the harrowing journey. Throughout, outer space exploration isn’t presented as a foreboding activity that humans should shy away from but rather a new frontier that we can not only survive in but master. How ironic that Ridley Scott, who gained fame with Alien, a film that presented space as filled with inhuman horrors, bookends his career with a film that culminates with a scene of Times Square filled up like New Year’s Eve, the crowd awaiting news of the latest NASA mission. At the end of The Martian, you’ll not only have bitten your nails in between laughs, you’ll want to fly into orbit yourself.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on Oct. 3rd, 2015.