In the last two years alone, Hollywood has produced three major sci-fi space movies—and two of them star Matt Damon. The Martian, though, stands out from its predecessors in two ways: protagonist Mark Watney’s unique gallows humor, and the scientific accuracy of a what-if.
What if someone was left behind on Mars? In the movie, NASA goes berserk when they discover that supposedly dead astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is actually alive. Watney fights for his life by conquering problem after problem that arises on Mars, equipped with only humorous wit and engineering skills. The film goes back and forth between the frantic action at NASA to bring one man home and Watney’s solo adventures on Mars.
“We discussed quite in depth about the fact that the story had to be told through quite a lot of voice over,” said director Ridley Scott. “And that’s a challenge for Matt. Voiceover could easily become elongated and boring, but I think [Matt] succeeded brilliantly by incorporating humor.”
Watney’s character originated from a serial on author Andy Weir’s website. Weir, who worked as a computer programmer at the time, posted a chapter of The Martian every 6-8 weeks. Because of the technological jargon, Weir never imagined that it would quickly climb Amazon’s best-selling list and become published by a division of Random House. The Martian found a home in mainstream audience largely because of Mark’s genuinely likable, funny personality.
“Watney is as close to being a man-child as he can be without being annoying,” said Weir. “He’s relentlessly optimistic, he’s very clever, very resourceful. It’s distilled wit. It took me months and months to write a thing that takes place over a few minutes.”
What makes The Martian stand out is that it doesn’t veer into existentialism—something Weir was aware of as he was writing.
“Realistically it would be a psychological nightmare for anybody trapped in this position, and it could have very easily become this dark depressing tale of this man’s struggle against loneliness,” he said, citing Cast Away as an example. “These are good stories but not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted it to be basically MacGyver in space… I got away with it because astronauts are not normal people. He was chosen for a manned Mars mission. He’s made of sterner stuff than the average person.”
Astronaut Andrew “Drew” Feustel explained that the character of Mark Watney is very true to who astronauts are.
“Astronauts are kind of like Mark Watney. We’re fairly straight shooters but at the same time we do have personality and we do like to crack jokes and have a good time,” said Feustel, who is part of an astronaut rock-and-roll band called Max Q. “You can’t take yourself too seriously in any scenario and that’s kind of one of the key aspects of our job. We’re out there fixing a spacecraft and floating among the stars but in the end, just like anybody else, we’re lucky to be there. We try to add a little levity to that so we don’t get too self-consumed. I like Watney’s character.”
Matt Damon was also drawn to Watney because of his humor in the face of high stress situation, his incredible resourcefulness, and the book’s dedication to reality.
“[Screenwriter] Drew Goddard said, ‘I want this to be a love letter to science.’ We had a long conversation and that’s a wonderful thing to put out into the world right now,” said Damon. “I don’t have any lofty expectations but I do hope that some kid sees it, geeks out about the science and enjoys it. Maybe it’s one thing among many other things in their life that pushes them in that direction.”
From the start, NASA was heavily involved with the filmmakers. Both NASA and the studio hope that with the movie’s release in October, public fascination will increase and direct Congress’s attention to fund future missions. NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Division Dr. Jim Green hopes the movie will inspire big dreams, which will, in turn, spur action.
“Science fiction is extremely important in our culture. It’s ingrained in what we do. It projects a vision of the future—something we aspire to,” said Dr. Green. “What I really enjoyed about the book and the movie is how close to reality it can be. It’s just around the corner for us.”
Science fiction is a sliver of the space exploration touchstone in civilization. Feustel spoke about the allure of exploring a place that captures the imagination.
“The thing about being an astronaut and space exploration is that it’s the farthest horizon in our minds that we can get to,” said Feustel. “It’s the edge of technology. It’s being in a place that humans haven’t been before and exploring it. It’s about seeing things for the first time as a human and experiencing new experiences. It’s the desire for knowledge: What’s out there? Where did we come from as humans? How does earth exist? What’s in the universe? Those things are off of this planet and we naturally assume the way to find out is to go there.”
Of course, there’s also the view from afar. Feustel recalled his first impression.
“[My first impression was] that earth was beautiful. And that earth was a spaceship—all on it’s own. We’re living on a spaceship right now and it’s called Earth. And it’s floating around in a very dark universe around us. Earth is by itself and very vulnerable to space. We don’t realize it because we can drive to Wal-Mart or a friend’s house, but space? There’s nothing out in space. There’s nothing nearby, or not that we can see, anyways.”
And that is the dark, wide playing field NASA has dedicated itself to exploring. Though it may seem the stuff of science fiction, NASA hopes to have its first manned Mars landing in the 2030s.
The Martian hits theaters October 2, 2015.