Too often, space flicks fall back on tired disaster movie tropes. Not ‘The Martian.’
The trope of the marooned explorer, fighting for survival in desperate conditions, is as old as storytelling itself. But Ridley Scott's upcoming film The Martian—based on the bestselling novel by Andy Weir—takes that premise to an entirely new level. The first trailer for the movie, released today, provides a sneak peek of Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself abandoned on Mars after a disastrous dust storm.
The trailer opens with one of the most poignant passages from the novel. "Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out," says Damon's Watney in a voiceover. "If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people coordinate a search. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world send emergency supplies. This instinct is found in every culture without exception."
This sentiment is an enormous part of what made The Martian such a satisfying read, especially given that the current pop culture climate is brimming with gleefully bleak dystopias. Don't get me wrong: I love films like Fury Road as much as the next road warrior, but it is still very gratifying to be introduced to a protagonist who is sold on the dazzling promise of human goodness right from the get-go, not because a badass Imperator proved it to him. Mark Watney is that guy.
More Mark Watney fun. Credit: Movies Coming Soon/YouTube.
Indeed, Watney's faith in his own species extends most powerfully to himself. That's the crux of the fantastic line from the trailer: "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this."
Watney is resourceful, calm, relatable, and down to Earth (or Mars, in this case). His extensive scientific acumen and delightfully cornball humor combine to make him the ultimate amalgam of real astronauts. While all space exploration movies need something to go wrong in order for the plot to advance, The Martian promises to be the rare story that shows an astronaut behaving realistically under these pressures.
To that point, The Martian is clearly inspired by the quick thinking and unflinching dedication displayed during the Apollo 13 mission. This kind of thematic framework sets the movie apart from the more pessimistic portrayals of future space explorers—for instance, Damon's recent turn as a space-crazy astronaut in Interstellar, or the Icarus-like themes of The Europa Report, Prometheus, Apollo 18, and most literally, Sunshine.
We need movies like The Martian to balance out these kinds of spaceflight disaster stories, which seem to imply that there should be some kind of karmic comeuppance for daring to expand our species off-world. As exciting as it is to watch astronauts succumb to space madness or alien monsters, it seems completely tangential to humanity's actual attempts to become an interplanetary species.
That's a shame, because we are entering an incredibly exciting age of space exploration. Over the last few months, NASA has really stepped up its game in terms of planning for a manned Martian mission, and SpaceX's Elon Musk has been open about his dream of permanently settling on the Red Planet for well over a decade.
The December 2014 test launch of Orion. Credit: RT/YouTube.
This isn't "pie in the sky" stuff. NASA is actively testing its Orion deep space exploration vehicle, and SpaceX is developing its own Martian colonization plan. "When we talked about Mars before, people thought we were certifiable," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell recently said. "Now, people kind of groove on it and they like to hear about it."
While there's no way to conclusively predict what these first manned missions to Mars will look like, Weir took pains to be as accurate as possible in plotting out his riff on it. More importantly, with Mark Watney, Weir has introduced a timely foil to the bumbling astronauts we are so often subjected to in space movies.
While the plot of The Martian pivots around the inevitable dangers of far-flung space missions, it also validates the idea that humans are genuinely worthy of our loftiest goals. As Mark Watney himself would say: "I guess you could call it a 'failure,' but I prefer the term 'learning experience.'"