I decided to go see The Martian by myself one night after a long day at a conference. It was late, the film didn’t start until 10:40, which after the commercials, trailers, and technical problems, meant 11 o’clock. I was already yawning and worried that I wouldn’t stay awake through the film. But it only took ten minutes before I was sucked into this gripping story and by the end of it, I was so energized and excited that I couldn’t go to sleep.
The actor Jessica Chastain, one of the stars of The Martian, recently tweeted this quote by filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu:
The Martian is an excellent film that does just this: It encourages us to look at each other with compassion and understanding, and to see ourselves as being deeply connected to others, rather than in opposition to them. Unlike most thrillers, The Martian has no villain, nor can violence be used as a solution to the tremendous problem at hand. Instead, it’s a film about groups of people, all of them intelligent and valuable and with something vital to offer, coming together and applying scientific principles and creative thinking to the task of bringing stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home from Mars. It’s only through cooperation, both on an individual and international scale, that Watney can be saved.
Despite the gravity and seeming hopelessness of the mission, the film itself never feels hopeless. Watney is understandably terrified at times, but he’s also motivated, hopeful, and even funny. The same is true of the people back on Earth, working long hours and using every ounce of their intelligence and expertise to figure out a way to bring Watney home. Sometimes in moments of great stress and tension, we need the release of humor to help us cope, so seeing the characters find humor in their own difficult situations not only makes the film more entertaining, but also helps us empathize with the characters and their struggles.
Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis is a particularly great character; she is smart, capable, and deeply concerned about the members of her crew. She is able to experience moments of self-doubt in the midst of the crisis without that making her seem in any way weak or unqualified for her position of leadership; in fact, it helps to humanize her. And she isn’t shoehorned into a romance subplot with the male main character; she has value on her own as the commander of the Ares III mission. Her crew respects her, the film respects her, and so do we as viewers.
However, this film, like the overwhelming majority of Hollywood films, has, at its center, a white man. His is the life that all of the characters come together to save, and of course, his life, like any human life, is absolutely worth saving. But Hollywood films so often encourage us to project ourselves onto white men, to see them as the representatives of universal human experiences, and too rarely encourage us to do that with people of other races and genders. If instead it were, for instance, a woman of color rather than a white man that The Martian showed people and nations coming together to save, then it might have been not just a great film, but a quietly radical one.
Overall, The Martian is an extraordinary film that, throughout the harrowing crisis it depicts, maintains a tone of warmth and hope, encouraging us to view all of its characters with empathy. By depicting humanity at its best, coming together and using intelligence and ingenuity to solve problems, it gives us an aspirational but achievable glimpse of a better world.