“The story is such a ripping good ride and so gorgeous to watch that you don’t merely want to suspend your disbelief, you want to tie it to a parking meter outside the theater and order it not to disturb you with its barking.” from a review in Time magazine by Jeffrey Kluger.
I saw The Martian last night. If you haven’t seen The Martian, you should. You should drag all of your friends to see The Martian. You should call up your siblings to whom you haven’t spoken in a year to tell them to see The Martian. You should definitely tell all your friends and contacts on any social media — Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, hell, even LinkedIn* — to see The Martian.
Admittedly, I was predisposed to like the movie going in: I had read the book, which is terrific, and the author is, in addition to being a really nice guy, a friend-of-friend. The movie was remarkably faithful to the book; while the screenwriter of necessity had to trim certain scenes and relationships, he did so elegantly, keeping true not just to the spirit of adventure indispensable to all good science fiction, but the humor which infused the entire work.
The Martian is an adventure, not a comedy, but the humor which astronaut Mark Watney (the titular Martian, played beautifully by Matt Damon) brings to his situation helps leaven what could be a deadly serious film. It’s not rah-rah funny laugh out loud humor (although there were moments when the predominantly geeky crowd did) but the wry, occasionally gallows humor common to intelligent people facing dire circumstances.
Columnists in various publications have claimed that The Martian is going to save NASA. (Among other things, it did give a flavor of some of the interior politics of the agency, although in reality they tend to be more Byzantine.) I don’t know if that’s true, but I did recognize in the the characters various traits which I have come to associate with people I have met who are involved in space. Intelligence, of course, but curiosity, a willingness to drive themselves when necessary, and yes, a certain dry sense of humor. The Martian is a love letter to NASA in the same way Apollo 13 was: see what we can accomplish when we need to?
There is a scene near the end (okay, spoiler alert, but it’s not really a major plot point), when Watney asks his commander to tell his parents that if he should die, it would be doing what he loved in pursuit of something bigger than himself. It was, he said, a death he “could live with.” Just typing those words brings me to tears.
I know people who espouse that same point of view. People who look at horizons not in terms of years but in terms of decades, occasionally in terms of lifetimes. Who view all of mankind as their customers, not merely the nation which pays their salary. Who spend many, many years of their lives developing hardware and software that may not even get to fly. Who, while not stranded on Mars, deal with sometimes serious problems in remote and inhospitable environments.
People who, the day after Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas, stated that they would go up tomorrow if they were offered the chance. Who, being professionals, know exactly how perilous space is, and what dangers they would face, and would go forth anyway.
The Martian is, in the end, a love letter to exploration, engineering, and perseverance.** You deal with the issue before you, while keeping in mind both your ultimate objective and the problems along the way. Space is an inhospitable place for humans, but with humor, fearlessness, and a seemingly endless supply of duct tape, we can go forth and all come home again.
*That is, if you use LinkedIn. I rarely do.