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The Martian (2015)

martianDIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover

REVIEW:

Following in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s InterstellarRidley Scott’s The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, is the latest in a trend of “hard sci-fi” movies that make serious attempts to give a reasonably realistic portrayal of space and the challenges that come with it (like the earlier films, the filmmakers consulted experts, with NASA involved as technical advisers during The Martian‘s script writing and production).  For Scott, whose prestigious name has taken a hit in recent years with unimpressive entries on an uneven filmography, this is a welcome return to form, and raises the argument that perhaps Scott is most comfortable with sci-fi; probably his two most classic films, Alien and Blade Runner, sit firmly within that genre, and even the more recent Prometheus was flawed but still intriguing and sporadically fascinating.  With The Martian, Scott has recovered from last year’s scattershot mess Exodus and proves to doubters that he’s still sometimes capable of churning out a solid motion picture, at least when working with a good script.  The Martian is an entertaining and engaging survival story that is neither an action flick nor a special effects extravaganza, but a serious pseudo docudrama of how one man uses every trick and scrap at his disposal to survive on a world where nothing grows and help is four years away.

We open in the near future, although the exact date is not specified.  The six-person crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and mission commander Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), have set up camp on the Martian surface and are conducting experiments and gathering soil samples.  When a major storm abruptly approaches—one powerful enough to destroy their fragile artificial habitat—Captain Lewis orders an emergency evacuation. As the crew beats a hasty retreat to their escape craft, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and lost in the storm.  His crewmates believe him to have been killed, and reluctantly leave him behind.  But Watney isn’t dead.  Though impaled by a piece of metal, he manages to remove it, close the wound and staple it shut, and make his way to the relative safety of the artificial habitat which, contrary to Lewis’ fears, survives the storm.  But now, having survived a swift death, Watney faces several ways of dying much more slowly, including oxygen deprivation, dehydration, or starvation.  Even if he manages to somehow open a line of communication with NASA and notify them of his survival, the soonest a rescue mission could reach him is four years away, and his food supply will run out long before help arrives.  Using all his skills as an astronaut and a botanist, he uses tenacity and ingenious methods to supplement his insufficient food supply by producing food on a world where nothing grows.  Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and Mars Mission Controller Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) write him off as a casualty.  Watney eventually figures out a scheme to establish rudimentary communication to correct this, and after various failed schemes and brainstorming, an audacious plan is hatched to slingshot the returning Ares 3 shuttle around the Earth, gathering enough velocity to launch it at top speed back toward Mars.  The plan involves extending the Ares 3 mission by over a year before they can set foot on Earth and see their families again, as well as risking running out of supplies and fuel, and NASA director Sanders vetoes the plan, unwilling to risk five more lives for a slim chance of saving one.  Nonetheless, Watney’s former crewmates, unwilling to abandon the crewmate they inadvertently left behind, unanimously vote to defy NASA’s orders and proceed with the plan on their own.  It then becomes a race against time to rescue Watney before his provisions run out.

martian2Considering both the premise, and Ridley Scott’s filmography, The Martian maintains a surprisingly upbeat tone.  That’s not to say there are no grim moments (there’s a scene early on as Watney digs a piece of metal out of his wound that’s uncomfortable to watch), or suspenseful sequences (the climax may get some viewers on the edge of their seats), but this is not at all the dark, downbeat experience we sometimes expect from Scott (in fairness, Scott did venture into lighthearted territory with 2006’s A Good Year).  The movie is not a comedy, but there’s a surprising amount of humor and one-liners scattered around, as well as the running joke of Watney, unable to bear the solitude in utter silence, being forced to continually listen to the collection of disco songs a crewmate left behind, and overall the tone, like Watney himself, is about as optimistic and life-affirming as can be expected considering it’s about a man stranded on a barren alien world struggling desperately to survive.  The Martian is a cinematic cousin to both Gravity and Cast Away, but in some ways is more lighthearted and more entertaining than either of them, without losing the tension of Watney’s predicament.  The script and narrative is tightly-focused and cohesive, showing none of the issues with cohesion that have plagued several of Scott’s more recent films (perhaps working closely from Weir’s novel made the difference).   The attention to technical detail, and the scenes of NASA scientists brainstorming for solutions, at times recalls Apollo 13 (unlike the 1995 film, The Martian does not tell a true story, but its sense of docudrama verisimilitude is strong enough that it almost feels like it could be).  Ironically, this is the second time Matt Damon has played a stranded astronaut (the first was in last year’s Interstellar, and Jessica Chastain also appears in both films), but his character here is both far more central, and more sympathetic.

Like all of Ridley Scott’s films, even the most flawed, The Martian is visually impressive, and the special effects are low-key and inconspicuous and used to enhance the story without taking it over.  The Wadi Rum valley in Jordan was used as a practical filming location for the barren desert environment of Mars, overlaid with a subtle layer of CGI to make it more closely resemble the Martian surface.  Never does it look like Damon is in anything less than a real location, and it’s virtually impossible to discern where the Jordan desert ends and CGI begins.  The sequences in space, which recall those in Gravity, are equally convincing.

Those expecting this to be a one-man show of the likes of Cast Away might be surprised.  While Matt Damon is unquestionably the lead, this is more of an ensemble than some might expect, with the action regularly cutting back-and-forth between Watney stranded on Mars, his crewmates on their rescue mission, and Mission Control back on Earth.  That said, large chunks of the film fall squarely on Damon’s shoulders, and he is up to the task, making Watney a likable and engaging protagonist whose survival is worth rooting for.  The movie avoids several cliches with his character.  Watney doesn’t rail melodramatically against his fate, and there is no wannabe Oscar clip of Damon having a sobbing meltdown.  The character has moments of despair, but he doesn’t linger on them.  Watney is a “can do” optimist who faces his dire predicament with a sense of humor and a dogged determination.  There are a lot of familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Oscar nominees Jessica Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor, along with Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig (playing mostly straight), Benedict Wong, Sebastian Stan (Captain America‘s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier), Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie, and Donald Glover, but while they provide a capable supporting ensemble, their characters are thinly-developed and they don’t get that much to do.  Damon is backed up by some very recognizable faces and highly-regarded names, but this is his show.

The Martian can stand proudly alongside Gravity and Interstellar as a solid trio of “hard sci-fi” dramas that, while taking some liberties with the laws of physics, are among the most realistic portrayals of space exploration Hollywood has yet produced.  In its survival story premise centering on one isolated character, it’s the closest cousin to Gravity, but the premise is less tightly constricted, the story is somewhat more substantial, and in some ways The Martian is a more rounded film.  It might not go down as a classic on the level of Alien or Blade Runner, but it’s a far more satisfying and respectable entry than several of Scott’s recent films, and proves that, when everything comes together, Ridley Scott is still a name that can produce good things.

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