It has been quite a while since I felt such pure, unadulterated joy during a movie. The Martian was a treasure of a film that conjured up some emotions that however elusive, remain the point of why humans make movies: wonder and magic. Although, in many ways, The Martian felt like the culmination of an argument that recently has been put forth by such wonderful films as Gravity and Interstellar, it simultaneously felt wholly refreshing and utterly superior to those two offerings. It was new, and it left me feeling exhilarated, excited, and brimming with optimism about being alive, a person, and a nerd. Let’s go to space, motherfucker.
Man Vs. Nature
It is said that there are four basic types of conflict: Man Vs. Man, Man Vs. Society, Man Vs. Self, and Man Vs. Nature. Although I’m not aware of any statistical studies on the matter, I think it’s widely agreed that the vast majority of Hollywood plots contain Man Vs. Man conflict. It is a naturally relatable, easier to execute form of conflict than any other. Even Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy chose to take the conflict with Sauron, which one might traditionally associate with Man vs. Nature (or, more precisely Man Vs. Supernature) in the original Tolkien texts, and provide a humanoid body to personify the antagonist, thus creating the eminently more relatable villain at the expense of faithfulness to the original material.
One of the things that felt so refreshing about The Martian is that it was devoid of villains. At its core, this was a story that very much started with Man Vs. Nature but evolved in a way that stood out against the backdrop of typical Hollywood moustache twirling villians; it evolved into Mankind Vs. Nature. That is to say that in lieu of sneering jerkfaces selfishly (and generally inexplicably or unbelievably) seeking their own ends at the expense of the protagonist (in this case Matt Damon as the marooned astronaut Mark Watney), the story chose to focus on pitting human ingenuity, cooperation, creativity, empathy and perseverance against the pants-shittingly scary-in-its-own-right task of surviving on an inhospitable Martian environment. In a world of calculating and scheming shitbirds, both fictional and non-fictional, it felt so good to dispense with that bullshit.
The end result was a case of the feel-goods, watching a team of humans who are heroic for all of the above mentioned traits, working together to solve problems in cooperation. Even when they come into minor conflicts, they are conflicts of philosophy. The primary interpersonal conflict in the film is “what is the best way to solve this problem?” Like a cool glass of fresh fucking water.
And yet, the movie does not lack tension or stakes. That became clear as I found myself noticeably relaxing after the resolution of a moment of tension, with survival on the line. My butt had to be moved back in the seat, my shoulders had to unhunch, my jaw had to unclench, and I began to breathe for the first time in what, in retrospect, had been about 25 seconds of breathlessness. All courtesy of a well written, visceral story of survival.
A Loveletter to Nerds
Even the best-written and directed of plots wouldn’t have the sort of stakes without one key element that The Martian had in spades: likeable, relatable characters. Matt Damon’s performance is spectacular in its likeability. This is a movie that uses humor, largely through the protagonists video diary entries, as a clinic in comic relief, to cut the tension, but at the same time, raise the stakes throughout the movie by humanizing Whatley (Damon) and investing us in his survival. Whatley’s jokes have an even more artful narrative purpose in that they provide a means of identification and immersion. The audience is made to understand that Whatley is using humor as a survival tool, to boost morale in the face of insurmountable odds, and so every joke we share with him is one in which we become part of the experience of survival.
But because this is a nerd network, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight, at this moment, that this is indeed a movie for nerds. Much of the humor is created for, or at least rooted in the specific penchants of our illustrious tribe. At one point during the film, there is an extended sequence regarding the Council of Elrond, including a laugh out loud nerd reference from Jeff Daniels that I don’t want to spoil for you. But as much as nerd culture is celebrated here, the substantive traits and qualities of the nerd are bathed in a spotlight of heroism and nobility in humor and in deed. In a climax of triumph Whatley exclaims that he is the greatest Botanist on the planet. In a moment of sober odds calculation, Whatley concludes there is only one thing to do: “Science the shit out of this.”
This theme carries to the entire supporting cast, which featured wonderful, and sometimes familiar performances. The casting sometimes felt like it should credit other nerd hero characters, “Will McAvoy from The Newsroom” as NASA President Teddy Sanders or “Cameron Howe from Halt and Catch Fire” as Satellite Nerd Mindy Park or “Troy from Community” as Steely-eyed Rocket Man Rich Purnell in lieu of crediting Jeff Davis, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover, respectively. However, the greatest part of these characters, as fully fleshed out as they are, with strong motivations, perspectives, and idiosyncrasies, is that they are heroes, all. Not only that, but they were heroes specifically because they were nerds. The heroic deeds of this movie are “doing maths” or “building rockets.” I recently watched the disaster film San Andreas, starring the Rock. The contrast is stark, because despite having the same basic premise, Man V Nature, the heroic deeds of The Rock were largely “flying a helicopter good” and “having muscles.” Let’s hold up what we care about, and what we aspire to be.
However, please don’t mistake this movie for a cold, cynical or otherwise pandering celebration of the cerebral without any heart. As much as it highlights the nerd as the heroic species that will save us all, the heroism of the movie rests on a foundation of basic humanity. Whatley’s heroic perseverance and refusal to give up is the thematic throughline of the movie, but the basic human qualities of loyalty and empathy are celebrated lovingly as well.
Why should you care?
The Martian is a film that should be celebrated by all people, but especially our tribe. The positivity, joy and ingenuity that oozes through the screen is laudable in its own right, but especially for us, especially for nerds. It is a film that is unique in its appreciation of us. Movie theaters are filled with cynical super-hero cash ins that feel increasingly unrelatable, or misplaced science fiction action, and most typically, just people being outstandingly shitty to each other.
Instead, with The Martian, we have something much closer to the Star Trek model: optimism, ingenuity, human cooperation, and science will carry us through our problems, along with a healthy dose of joy, humor and humanity. It is a celebration and love letter to all that we aspire to stand for, as we try to create our future together. This is a film that you should go see, not just because it is wildly enjoyable, but because it is something that feels worthy of your support in the most basic human way.
In the words of GLaDOS: This is a triumph!