It’s the world’s turn to save Matt Damon.
There’s an odd sort of glee that I managed to find in watching The Martian. Odd not because it’s incongruous with the movie’s intention – eliciting enjoyment seems to be its primary concern – but because it’s a sensation relatively rare in blockbuster films lately: most large-budget movies with a working brain nowadays tend to lean into darker themes in order to prove their mettle. The main exception to this would probably be Marvel’s money-printing universe, but the sort of fun to be had there consists of intelligent, self-aware silliness and large, complex set pieces; the adventure is all in the dialogue, and the punching.
The Martian seems to be a movie from an earlier time. It’s interested in Adventure in the classical sense, in the same way that Indiana Jones or some of director Ridley Scott’s earlier films are: as a way to exacerbate the admirable, the exciting, and the courageous parts of the human spirit. Just listen to the first trailer’s voiceover: “Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out.” Even as the music swells, our trusted friend Matt Damon lists off examples: “This instinct is found in every culture, without exception,” he says.
That voiceover isn’t present in the film, but it is a much more accurate conveyor of tone than the ominous music behind it is. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who is left on Mars after his crew, believing him to be dead, aborts their mission during a storm. When he wakes, he spends a long, painful time pulling out the antennae that’s lodged itself into his abdomen, then takes a walk. “I’m not going to die here,” he decides, and we believe him.
That’s essentially the rhythm of the movie, which bounces back and forth between Earth, Mars, and Watney’s crew, who are on their way home. The overall action of the film becomes watching a group of distinct individuals band together to save Matt Damon (insert Saving Private Ryan joke here) and watching Matt Damon try to save himself. There’s a steady beat: a build of satisfaction – watching Mark succeed in his scientific endeavors, seeing him manage contact with NASA, listening to him crack joke after joke into his video log – and then a setback, which all manage to be surprisingly impactful time after time.
I prefer to call Matt Damon by his name in this role because the movie and its message seem to be built from the ground up to work off of people we know and trust. Part of the sincere enjoyment of watching all the world band together to save Matt Damon are all the people who are doing the saving – Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, and Sean Bean comprise only part of our Earthly/ Earth-bound team. Rather than distract, these faces feel warm, and welcome; referencing them by name feels like it’s being encouraged by the film, which has gathered a huge amount of Hollywood talent and charisma in order to build a community that doesn’t have to work to be liked. The strength of this approach comes from the fact that The Martian is an ultimately optimistic film, one that believes in the power of humanity to endure and to strive for betterment, while maintaining a wicked sense of humor throughout; giving us a group of people we already know and love to portray the best among us feels like a sort of guilty pleasure.
Perhaps the most antiquated thing about the film is that the joys within it feel entirely wholesome. We don’t smile because of innuendo, because of stylistic violence or sexiness, because of maintained irony or satire. We smile because we’re watching someone push on despite the odds, because we’re watching someone put their intelligence to use, because we’re seeing a group of people decide to do the right thing. If it feels sappy to say these things, it’s the fault of a popular culture painfully adverse to sentimentality, and, oftentimes, sincerity. I didn’t realize until after I saw the movie that I had been craving a chance to just watch people be decent.
The main difference between The Martian and adventure films of old is the clear lack of a villainous force. The only antagonist here is the universe, which sits indifferent to the struggles of its inhabitants as they slowly move within its borders. The sense of space as a terrifying place is maintained throughout the movie; we’re constantly reminded that every success is a conscious, effortful step for both man and mankind, and that each movement forward would be impossible on one’s own. The stars may be the next frontier, but Earth is where the heart is.