How Movies Like ‘The Martian’ Hit Home from Outer Space

Last weekend I forked over a few bucks, like thousand of other moviegoers, to see The Martian on the big screen. Insert pun here: “It was out of this world.”

The film continues a newly birthed tradition of autumn space adventures. In 2013, we had Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning Gravity. In 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. This year, it’s the book-to-film adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, a realistic look at an astronaut’s survival and rescue after being left behind by the rest of his Mars mission team.

For a fictional film, it has every chance of becoming plausible in the future. Everything from NASA’s media-minding procedures to the science involved in traveling, pioneering and surviving the Red Planet seems, at least to a layperson, accurate, mostly because it’s so technical that it would be hard to find many flaws in the logic, let alone the minutiae. Oh yeah, and the performances are spot-on, including dramatic performances by comedians Donald Glover and Kristin Wiig, Jeff Daniels’ typical but terrific straight-man, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission leader and — as reluctant as I am to give much credit to the diversity discussion-challenged* — Matt Damon in the lead role.

*My one qualm with the film is that it lacks women of color. On second thought, Damon probably interrupted them so much that they quit.

The Martian is the newest on a list that’s continued to grow over the last few years of films about space exploration. Just as everyone expects Oscar contenders on Christmas and action hero blockbusters in May, the autumn months bring some epic space drama filled with A-listers in front of and behind the camera. In this case, Ridley Scott’s direction doesn’t disappoint.

Still, kudos to a genre that continues to keep post-Apollo America fascinated by space in a non-comic book way. It helped that the water-on-Mars announcement happened a week before The Martian — talk about a nice promo from NASA — but even Gravity and Interstellar attracted audiences sans a real-life prelude.

The reason for this? As much as outer space seems to be an ironically limiting setting for a motion picture, each year has come with a different framing for these stories that directly coincides with what the viewing public needs.

In 2013, we got Gravity,  a survival story that favored human nature and emotion rather than accurate technicality. It traded scientific detail for vague procedures, which left room for viewers to connect with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) on a mental and emotional level.

That same year — and 2012, when the film was made — saw a number of human-driven tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook school shooting and Boston Marathon bombing. We watched survivors mourn and start to heal. It’s not a surprise, then, that moviegoers found solace in Stone’s emotional struggle to overcome adversity, regardless of her solutions’ technical accuracy.

Fast-forward a year through events like the Ebola outbreak, the public rise of ISIS and Boko Haram and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine — global struggles that make us fear for the safety of our world. Many of us wanted some type of hope that we could get beyond the chaos, even if it meant simply submerging ourselves in a film.

Christopher Nolan delivered that with November 2014’s Interstellar, a mind-bender that used conceptual science as a platform for extremely fictional exploration. The “not so distant future” trope gets extorted by wormholes, time travel and man-made dangers, and man’s only hope for survival is not to get back home, as it was in Gravity, but by finding a new home far from its original planet. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is never coming home, and that sacrifice is at the heart of the action, relationships and perspectives displayed through the film. What a way to echo the way we felt in 2014 — that we’d gladly leave the darkness of this world for the uncertainty of another if there was just a hint of it being better.

Survival and struggles continue, but events in 2014 and 2015 got us excited about space science again, from talk of a private manned mission to Mars to NASA’s announcement of finding evidence of flowing water on our next-planet neighbor. Science, technology, engineering and math became the hottest subject to talk about, if not study, because it offers some of the best job opportunities. The Martian uses that newfound interest to its advantage, proving that Americans — and much of the rest of the world — is as excited about what else is out there as ever.

Of course, space films have been doing this for more than a century. In 1902, Georges MélièsLe Voyage Dans la Lun (Trip to the Moon) was one of the first effects-filled films that connected with audiences’ interest in seeing fantasy, not just real life, appear on the screen before them. 2001: A Space Odyssey let director Stanley Kubrick critique everything that was wrong with modern society in a way that audiences found themselves nodding along (though whether the nods were from agreement or confusion is anyone’s guess).

Movies in general echo want we need and want to see — after all, that’s how they make their money. The Great Depression had rags-to-riches and happy-go-lucky movies that lifted audiences’ spirits. The Cold War showed Americans beating back Communism, even through 1980s films like Rocky IV. We continue to have space movies to remind us that our primal need to survive, explore and rationally solve problems step-by-step will always be part of humankind’s makeup, no matter how technologically advanced we become, how high we fly or how far from home we land.

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