‘Cut out all the mathematical jargon and add some more of the weeping family back on Earth’.
That’s the kind of note you can imagine appearing on a lot of astronaut disaster scripts being banded around Hollywood.
It’s The Martian’s avoidance of this trope that makes it succeed as a film however.
Matt Damon’s Nasa botanist astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars following a sandstorm and must stay alive long enough for a rescue mission to return him home, doesn’t dream of a ranch back home. There’s no daughter asking “Mom, is Daddy coming back?” or extended family gathering around the TV set waiting for updates.
Nor is he painted as some kind of loner - his personal life is simply not relevant to the story.
“It was one of the things we had to fight to protect,” screenwriter Drew Goddard told me.
“I like that the story is contained to the events that happen. We don’t really talk about what happened before too much or everyone else’s lives outside of the situation, it’s just about these people in these moments and I think it’s more powerful that way.”
Instead of focusing on human bonds, The Martian is a celebration of science.
“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” Watney decides upon finding himself alone on the planet with no sign of help from home, and the film doesn’t shy away from the mathematical detail as he secures what’s left of the Mars base and tries to create the basic requirements for life from whatever he can find lying around.
“Honestly that was the biggest challenge of the movie,” Goddard said of all the mathematical explanation. “It was just trusting that the audience would wanna hear that and go with it.”
I really enjoy just watching experts at work. It’s always exciting to me.
I explained that I particularly enjoyed watching Watney beaver away trying to make water, even though I didn’t understand all the chemistry involved.
“It’s very gratifying to hear you say that, because we kept reassuring ourselves you don’t need to understand,” he replied. “We all get that you need water and food - so you get the emotional side of it - and if you don’t quite understand the process that’s okay.
“I really enjoy just watching experts at work. It’s always exciting to me.”
The Martian treads a strange, possibly unprecedented line between thriller and comedy, that injects some-needed lightness into what would otherwise be a pretty bleak story, even if at times Watney’s upbeat nature becomes a little unbelievable (he still manages to crack wise while inches from certain death by oblivion).
It also takes much-needed shots at the archaic rivalries between space agencies and countries, and could very possibly start a debate about why collaboration with regards to space travel between different nations isn’t being fully maximised.
It’s the film’s unbridled passion for science that leaves me pumped as I leave the screening though, a similar reaction to the one I had after Ex Machina, which embraced the complex technology and philosophy at work in its A.I. premise, and films like these hopefully signals a new era of sci-fi that respects its audience and doesn’t feel the need to always interpolate a romance.