Recommendation: National Geographic’s ‘Mars’ Miniseries

Netflix likes to recommend lots of things to me, with varying levels of success. Fortunately, a really successful recommendation recently has been ‘Mars’, a National Geographic-produced series about the colonisation of… well, Mars.

It’s a split between documentary and sci-fi drama. The documentary covers current (or at least, 2016) efforts to advance humanity’s reach across the solar system, whilst the drama covers a fictional colony of Martian settlers twenty years from now, and the challenges and frequent crises they must face as they try to establish a permanent colony.

The documentary is a lot of talking heads and archival footage, so nothing ground-breaking, but it covers a lot of interesting topics, from the economics of space travel and the necessity for cheap, reusable rockets, to the harsh realities of living in space for long periods of time, separated from gravity and loved ones. This section covered Scott Kelly’s twelve-month stay aboard the ISS, and was particularly touching as it covered the strain it put on his relationship with his adolescent daughter.

The dramatic segments are of mixed appeal. Production qualities are high and sets and costumes all look suitably authentic. Sadly, the drama is frequently let down by a distracting amount of “bobblehead syndrome” – several of the lead actors seem incapable of delivering a line without either shaking or nodding their head throughout. The more experienced thesps do a perfectly fine job, particularly Anamaria Marinca, who plays the mission’s exobiologist.

The show also manages a decent stab at representation, with women taking most of the prominent roles of authority. Indeed, the typical all-American white bloke who unsurprisingly commands the mission is replaced by a Korean woman in the second episode, which was unexpected and refreshing.

After four out of six episodes, it’s certainly been enjoyable and interesting in equal measure. The first three episodes lean heavily on tension and danger, but the fourth deals with more domestic concerns, before setting up another major crisis to follow. Fortunately, a second series is coming next year, so the crew should be safe for now.

If Mars colonisation is a topic that interests you, there’s also ‘The Martian’, pretty obviously, as well as the book it was based on, whose author, Andy Weir, appears as one of the interviewees in ‘Mars’. For more hard sci-fi, there’s the Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, but that emphasis on “hard” is there for a reason. The ludicrous amount of detail he puts into the practicalities of life on the red planet is great for a space nerd like me, but I abandoned the second book, ‘Green Mars’, after what felt like a thousand pages of intensely in-depth geopolitics and legislation of a burgeoning Martian civilisation. Even I have my limits.

A Review of the movie ‘The Martian’ (2015)

‘The Martian’ is lovely. It’s warm and comforting and funny. It’s Ridley Scott doing Space again, but instead of messing it up with rampant philosophy and the Monster Mash, he strays away from the pitfalls of ‘Prometheus’ and keeps everything focused around the humanity of the characters involved.

The book upon which the film is based, by Andy Weir, is sublime. It covers the intricacies of spaceflight in sumptuous detail, all the things that can go wrong in a tiny pressure vessel millions of miles from home. Of course, the film can’t afford the same level of scientific insight in a manageable run-time, but it more than makes up for it in in other ways.

Okay, this is starting to look like an actual review rather than my usual inane ramblings, so let’s get back to our regular transmission.

‘The Martian’ makes ‘Gravity’ look like a dildo. Where ‘Gravity’ drains four D-cells in an attempt to vibrate you to satisfaction as reliably as possible, ‘The Martian’ offers the benefits of a sensitive and considerate lover that tends to your needs and actually maintains eye contact for most of it.

Indeed, ‘The Martian’ only ramps up the tension and the drama right at the point of climax. It moves at different speeds to satisfy its audience, rather than the “On/Off, all-or-nothing” approach of ‘Gravity’. ‘The Martian’ understands that you need laughter as well as stimulation; it understands that pounding the G-Spot like a Rousey Cannonade is just a part of the overall process.

Matt-Damon-Jessica-Chastain-Sebastian-Stan-Aksel-Hennie-in-The-Martian
Just a few of the awesome cast of ‘The Martian’. Notice how it’s only the guy on the right who even resembles a marital aide. And even HE gets a better character arc than anyone in ‘Prometheus’.

This even applies to the cast; Bullock and Clooney are there just to stimulate the right areas, appendages extending the film’s main oscillatory function. But Damon and Chastain, Daniels and Wiig, Ejiofor and Bean all bring their own charm to the affair, their own interest; they’re the wandering lips and searching hands that remind you that this is the real thing. Even Donald Glover’s minor role is perfectly realised by the young actor; he’s sadly outclassed by more experienced colleagues, but even though it’s not exactly what gets you going you still appreciate the film’s openness to experimentation.

Oh yes, ‘The Martian’ will try Butt Stuff.

And, whereas ‘Gravity’ finishes on the oh-so-subtle imagery of its protagonist swimming upwards into the light (METHAPHORICAL), ‘The Martian’ offers you a quick but fulfilling epilogue to each of its characters. In essence, ‘The Martian’ helps you clean up afterwards, where ‘Gravity’ just gets a quick wipe before going back in the drawer.

Comparing these two films is arguably unfair; you ought to know with ‘Gravity’ that you’re just going in for a session of instant gratification; it’s a simulation of the best bits of the real thing, but it’s never going to be as satisfying. No, ‘The Martian’ has much more in common with the genre-defining ‘Apollo 13’.

Indeed, you could well view ‘The Martian’ as the modern-day successor to Ron Howard’s 1995 tour de force. It takes full advantage of contemporary special effects and uses them to tell an amazing story that actually leaves you feeling inspired and hopeful, and it has so much scientific authenticity that if feels like it’s based on a historical event.

‘The Martian’ is invested in the story it tells, and its authenticity extends to its characters, the stories that they each will tell once it’s all over. In a short space of time it presents a different perspective for each of them, but flawlessly ties them all together about the fate of the eponymous hero. Each person there has a different reason for caring about the same thing, and with some deliciously clever acting and a few light directorial touches, it explores each character exactly as much as it needs to. By the end I felt like I knew even minor characters, like the low-ranking satellite operator, better than I did the main protagonists of much more extravagant movies. Like fucking ‘Gravity’.

I just hope Scott takes his successes here and applies them to his inevitable ‘Prometheus’ sequels. If there’s one fucking thing those movies will need, it’s some sensible characterisation.