The Martian   
Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Drew Goddard. Adapted from the novel by Andy Weir.      
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiif, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.        
140 minutes, 2015.
     

When his NASA mission is forced to suddenly leave Mars because of a storm, astronaut Mark Watney is left on the Red Planet, presumed dead by his companions. Waking up in a hostile environment, Mark does not lose heart and tries to survive and contact Earth for help …

The Martian has been described as a sequel to Gravity, but its real model is Cast Away. Unlike Gravity, it has few metaphysical pretensions and little existential angst. It is more like a paean to the ability of homo scientificus to identify problems and find solutions in the fight to survive which also lies at the heart of progress. 

When astronaut-botanist Mark Watney is deserted on the sterile and hostile surface of the Red Planet, he begins to do what he does best and with a package of potatoes he has for Thanksgiving, begins to cultivate what will ensure his survival up the next expedition. (The recent news of flowing salty water on the surface was not included in the plot.)

This is only the first of many amazing finds (worthy of the ingenious MacGyver in the memorable TV show of the ‘80s) that our protagonist improvises to survive.

These are dutifully recorded in a scientific journal that quickly becomes an impromptu and humorous reflection on himself, his progress, mistakes and projects. This expedient—the modern equivalent of Robinson Crusoe’s diary— immediately wins the viewer’s sympathy for a protagonist who never loses hope, even in the face of the worst. 

In this avowedly secular film (the only references to God are the slightly improper—but not disrespectful—use of a crucifix belonging to one of Matt’s colleagues, and a brief address to God at the launch of a probe) the only true faith is in man and in his will to live, learn, and explore.

Although most of the film revolves around Mark’s adventures, the film does not forget the rest of the crew (who courageously decide to get involved in the rescue mission), and even NASA.  The limited screen time of many characters is balanced by the presence of luxury cameos, a wink at television and film culture (in fact, the secret meeting to plan Mark’s rescue is nicknamed “The Council of Elrond,” with one of its members being Sean Bean—who played Boromir in The Lord of the Rings). 

The story lacks an enemy (apart from the immensity of space), because everyone (even the Chinese!) fight for Mark in their own way and want to save him.  If mistakes are made, they are made in good faith; even “political” decisions are guided by reason and a sense of duty, and certainly not by hidden agendas. 

Ridley Scott has made a sci fi film far from the gloominess of Alien (1979) or the laughable metaphysical pretensions of Prometheus (2012). The result is surprisingly healthy and mostly cheerful entertainment that perhaps, due to the film’s stubborn optimism, ends up losing some of its pathos without taking full advantage of the ideas that its ultra-dramatic promise would have allowed.  No matter where we get lost, we would certainly want to have someone like Mark with us. Yet, the story would have been better if there were a bit more uncertainty about the outcome.

Viewer discretion is advised for a few scenes of tension and a slightly disturbing scene of self-medication.

Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster, and contributes to several magazines and websites about cinema and television.

NASA scientists discuss whether the film is realistic or not in this video from Wired.   

Laura Cotta Ramosino works for Cattleya, an Italian production company, as a creative producer and story editor for several television shows. She is also a regular contributor to the website Sentieri...