And now we get to The Martian; the most lighthearted Best Picture nominee. After watching films dealing with the housing bubble, abduction and child molestation, it’s refreshing to watch pure entertainment. An astronaut (Matt Damon) finds himself alone on Mars with no means of realism. After a few weak films in the recent years like the god awful The Counselor and the confusing mess Prometheus, Director Ridley Scott returns to top form with an science fiction adventure of a man trying to survive a planet not meant for man.
During a mission on Mars, a space crew finds itself hit with a sand storm, which strikes Mark Watney (Damon) and separates him from the others. With no means of communications with Earth, limited supplies and no rescue mission for another four years, Watney’s alone on a desert planet. His only salvation is the Mars space station, but even that doesn’t have enough food or oxygen for 4 years. To add insult to injury, everyone thinks he’s dead. Not one to take things lying down, Watney makes a plan to “science the shit out of this.”
While most writers would have Watney battling aliens or going on a philosophy head trip, novelist Andy Weir and screenwriter Drew Goddard (Netflix’s Daredevil) keeps the story as grounded in reality as possible. The only “villain” of this film is the desert atmosphere, which has both extreme sand storms and lack of oxygen. As someone would/should do in this situation, Watney takes a lot of time calculating rations and estimating periods of oxygen. And when he gets creative with survival tactics, he’s not MacGyver but a professional collecting years of training to find a solution. Adding to the realism is the beautiful cinematography, which creates a red desert you’d imagine on Mars.
Somehow, these elements make the film more entertaining than most science fiction movies. First, the need to prolong survival always lingers for Watney, which creates tension just from how many potatoes he has left. Intrigue adds to tension via Watney’s creative survival skills. Whether he’s using his own feces to fertilize a garden of potatoes or using Morse code-esque signal to contact NASA, he’s like Survivor Man in space.
In contrast to Scott’s sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner, The Martian is very optimistic. No matter how wrong things get, Watney never gives up. He always calculates a new solution. The optimism truly shines when Watney finally gets in contact with NASA. We see employees gather together to calculate solutions and make designs in hope of bringing Watney home. Most films would have weak willed bureaucrats undermining the mission. You won’t find them here. When decisions are made that undermine saving Watney, there’s either a limitation or an understandable reason behind it. A lot of actors get to shine in these scenes, including Jeff Daniels as a NASA executive, Donald Glover as a computer mathematician and Jessica Chastain as Watney’s captain.
What is most surprising is this film’s sense of humour. Damon has a lot of funny moments, from the joy of being “this world’s greatest botanist” or the agony of his only music choices being Disco. You can imagine Watney cracks jokes to make light of his desperate situation. The film still takes his situation seriously, but the comedy adds to the film’s appeal. Plus, how many science fiction films have a botanist for a hero? It even won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy Feature, much to everyone’s confusion.
Despite the humour, The Martian’s not a comedy. It is an exciting and adventurous celebration of people’s abilities to survive despite overwhelming odds. By grounding itself in reality, this film becomes an embodiment of the quote “Less is more.” Every aspect of the film shines, from the beautiful environment to the suspenseful story line right down to the performances.
 Well, maybe except for Brooklyn.