Although I am not in general a fan of the disaster/survivor genre of films, I enjoyed The Martian though I think that at 2 hours and 20 minutes it was a tad too long. The film deals with a NASA mission to Mars in which the six-member crew finds itself suddenly hit by a massive dust storm that not only seems to have killed one of them (played by Matt Damon) by being impaled by an antenna and buried under dust, but also threatens to wreck their return vehicle.
The rest of the crew abort the mission and leave. But it turns out that Damon had actually survived the storm and the injury and he is now abandoned on the planet with only a base unit and some Mars rovers and other supplies from previous missions to keep him alive. His challenge is to find some way of surviving until NASA can find a way to rescue him, which could take years.
One of the first rules of such films is to have the stranded person played by an actor that audiences find likable and want to root for to survive, hence the choice of Tom Hanks in Cast Away and Apollo 13 and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Damon fits the bill here. If Ted Cruz had been an actor and given that role, the audience would have been hoping for NASA to fail.
What I liked about this film was that they did not try to add tension by manufacturing some hokey subplot with a villain or a romance or some such thing. They seemed to have decided that the scientific and technological challenges that needed to be overcome in carrying out the rescue mission, and the inevitable honest disagreements about the merits of the various options and the right course to follow, were sufficient to engage the audience. It worked for me.
By coincidence, just a few weeks ago I read the book Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson that tells the story of the colonization of Mars. Robinson belongs to the group of science fiction writers who are ‘realistic’, by which I mean that they stick to science and technology that is plausible and do not invoke exotic plot devices like wormholes and hyper-drives and the like that we have no real evidence to support. The book goes into a wealth of detail about the nature of Mars and what it would take for a colony to survive there (there is even a description of a massive dust storm) and this film gave me a better visualization of it.
(Some Mars facts: The length of the Mars day is 24 hours and 39 minutes, almost the same as that of Earth while its period of orbit around the Sun is about 669 Martian days or ‘sols’. Its gravity is about 40% that of Earth, its mass is roughly one-tenth that of Earth, and its radius is about half that of Earth. The average surface temperature varies from -143oC to +35oC with an average of -63oC. Its average distance from the Earth is about 225 million km, which means that the transmission time for light and communication signals to travel between the two planets is about 12 minutes.)
In films such as these, there are always implicit messages. In this one, in addition to being an infomercial for NASA (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it also suggests that the world of science and technology transcends narrow racial, national, political, and ideological boundaries and this unity can be harnessed to do great things. When watching the film, my mind contemplated all the benefits we could achieve if we focused on what we can do together rather than squander our wealth on wars that serve to destroy and divide us. I hope the film makes more people think along those lines.
Here’s the trailer.