‘The Martian’ Is Cinema’s Love Letter To Being A Nerd [Feature]

the martian

The Martian is the best nerd movie of 2015. I know, I know, there’s a Star Wars movie coming out two and a half months from now. (Holy crap guys there is a new Star Wars coming out two and a half months from now.) God, Mickey Mouse, and J.J. Abrams willing, it will be worthy of the legacy of the original trilogy… or at least it won’t have any floppy earned, intelligence-insulting racial caricatures designed for the sole purpose of selling toys.

But I’ve hopped into my DeLorean, stopped off at October 21st for some sweet hoverboard action, moved ahead to December, watched The Force Awakens (that Howard the Duck cameo was insane), and returned to the good ol’ present day to tell you: The Martian is nerd supreme.

By now you’ve probably heard that The Martian is amazing, and it is. You should see it if you haven’t already. If you have, see it again. Ridley Scott’s finally made another good movie, and we need to give him all the positive reinforcement we can so he’ll believe in himself and keep Damon Lindelof far, far away from the Prometheus sequel. The Martian‘s acting, soundtrack, score, visual effects: All aces. I never know how much I wanted a space exploration movie with an ABBA montage until I got one.

But the thing, for me, that put The Martian above and beyond is the way it unapologetically wears its bleeding, nerdy heart on its sleeve for all the world to see. There’s not a superhero or an alien in sight (…spoiler?), but this movie is about being a nerd.

Like the (wonderful) original novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is unabashedly pro-science, depicting space exploration as a joy, a triumph, a necessary extension of the human spirit in spite of the dangers it poses. And it is dangerous–astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) didn’t get stranded in a desolate wasteland when he went to the corner bogeda for some ramen. But, as Watney says, if he does die on Mars, he’ll be “dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me.” The pursuit of greater knowledge of our universe may be fraught with peril–both of the physical and financial variety (Margaret Lazaus Dean writes: “The biggest inaccuracy in THE MARTIAN is that NASA gets the funding necessary for the mission.”)–but it’s worth it, and all the characters in The Martian, as well as and the movie itself, never question that.

Furthermore, pretty much every character is a nerd among nerds, and that is awesome. There’s no generally accepted definition of what a nerd is–there wouldn’t be, because we’d spend ages arguing over it, God love us–but I tend to think of it in general terms. A nerd is someone who gets excited about a subject. A. Lot. Who loves it to the marrow of their bones, come hell or high water of extreme social embarrassment. We collect tidbits of knowledge. Our hallmark isn’t so much what the subject of that knowledge is, but the fact that we are unabashedly, unapologetically enthusiastic about it.

Watney’s excitement about the intricacies of maritime law and how it applies to Mars means he’s a space pirate because he’s a big ol’ nerd. Vincent Kapoor instantly gets why Watney wants to be called Captain Blondebeard because he already knows the intricacies of maritime law and how it applies to Mars, because he’s a big ol’ nerd. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is a big ol’ disco nerd. Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) is a big ol’ math nerd. Johanssen (Kate Mara) is a big ol’ computer nerd. Zhu Tao and Guo Ming, of China’s space exploration program, are the nerdiest nerds of all: Their “Screw the politicians, scientists need to stick together” moment legitimately had me tearing up.

The beating, nerdy soul of The Martian, for me, can be found in a single line uttered by Jeff Daniels’ character, Teddy Sanders, during a Certain Scene that will go down in nerd lore. (If you’ve seen it, you know the one.) If he’s going to take part in a secret meeting, Teddy says, “I would like my code name to be Glorfindel.”

The head of NASA, up until this point Teddy was the bureaucrat, the guy more concerned with public relations and funding than the science part of scientific exploration. With his suit and tie and his officious-seeming manner, he’s the square in the den of nerds. And then he drops a Lord of the Rings reference like it’s nothing. Because this man is the head of NASA. Of course he’s a nerd. He is the Lord of nerds. He is the nerd King. As a kid, he got teased for making intricate, cross-referenced charts about the grammatical rules of Tolkien’s fictional languages, and you know it.

In the world of The Martian, it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or black or white or Asian or whatever or if you freak out over hexidecimal charts or homemade explosives or first-pressing ABBA albums. If you are a nerd, that is a beautiful thing, and the world needs you to do something great. And you can. Whatever the problem is–wherever you want to be, whether it’s back on Earth or out among the stars–you can solve it with enthusiasm and love and an absolute refusal to be told to back down.

And a little bit of duct tape.


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