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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review: The Martian (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor

If you can say nothing else for it, you have to at least give Ridley Scott's The Martian props for not being afraid to go big. It's a movie that properly earns the distinction as a "spectacle," being an epic and visually stunning science fiction tale, but it's also a thematically big picture, one that seeks to portray and affirm the triumph of human ingenuity and determination, and of the human spirit. It's a feel good movie that's exhilarating rather than mushy, a science fiction story that's more about awe than terror, and a character piece that offers a wonderful showcase for the talents of Matt Damon. To my mind, this is the movie that last year's Interstellar wanted to be but wasn't.

The Martian concerns a manned mission to Mars with the six member crew of the Ares III: commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and astronauts Martinez (Michael Pena), Watney (Matt Damon), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Vogel (Aksel Hennie). When a massive storm hits, Lewis makes the decision to evacuate, but only five of the six crew members makes it off the planet after Watney is impaled and killed by debris and then disappears into the dust. While the surviving members of the crew begin the long journey back to Earth, with Lewis battling guilt over Watney's fate, NASA's director (Jeff Daniels) struggles on the ground as he tries to keep the incident from swelling into a PR disaster that will set the space program back. On Earth, Watney is memorialized and symbolically laid to rest, while on Mars, a not-quite-dead Watney comes to and realizes that he's been left behind and is all alone on the red planet.

When he makes his way back to the habitat, Watney takes stock of what remains of the supplies and lays out all the ways that he could die - running out of water, running out of food, running out of oxygen, being killed by Mars' atmosphere should the habitat be breached - taking into consideration that he has no way to communicate with NASA to let them know that he's still alive and, even if he did, it would still be four years before help could come for him. He despairs at first but quickly rallies and becomes determined to do everything he can to survive on Mars. To that end, he uses his knowledge and skill as a botanist to find a way to grow potatoes, and begins strategizing ways to travel the distance across Mars to the planned site of the future Ares IV mission, which necessitates finding a way to modify the rover that he has which can currently only run for a few hours before having to be recharged at the habitat. When satellite images result in NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) realizing that he's still alive, NASA begins matching Watney's efforts to find a way to communicate across the distance, and come up with a plan to get him off of Mars. With time of the essence, multiple groups of people working in multiple parts of the Earth and beyond begin working together for a common goal.

One of the more winning aspects of The Martian (which has many winning aspects) is the way that it manages to be a story about unity even as it focuses on one man isolated on a distant planet. Watney has to rely a great deal on his own intelligence and capabilities, but his survival is never down to just him; if it happens, it will be the result of a lot of very smart and very determined people working together to make it happen, and that sense of community, of multiple groups of people working concurrently on their own particular piece of the puzzle, informs much of the film and provides it with an unexpected degree of warmth (this is, after all, from the director who brought us Alien). As a character, Watney, though very aware of his fragile mortality and appropriately afraid, relishes to some degree the opportunity to test and prove himself, but he also recognizes that there are problems that he can't solve by himself and that he does need other people to get through. It's a little strange, insofar as Watney is depicted as not just alone but a loner (all the other astronauts are shown interacting with family and loved ones at some point except for Watney, who mentions his parents briefly but is never shown being part of a family), but The Martian takes his story and turns it into an affirmation of the value of belonging in some way or another with a group of other people. Oxygen, water, and food are all necessary for survival, but so are other people.

In the central role, Damon brings humor and a lot of confidence to Watney, allowing him to show his fear at times while also at times burying it beneath a cocksure bravado. With no one to directly play off of for most of the movie, Damon carries some of the movie's most difficult scenes all on his own, and his performance is never less than compelling. He provides a solid center to the story while a supporting cast stacked with great actors doing solid work orbit around him, including Ejiofor as the tireless engineer who serves as the connecting tissue for the various subplots being woven together on the ground, Chastain as the no nonsense mission commander who approaches everything with steely determination without ever seeming less than human, Daniels as the cold and pragmatic NASA director who always has to keep the bottom line in mind, and Benedict Wong as the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose team works night and day for months building what will be necessary to rescue Watney. There are a ton of other key supporting players here who all contribute something vital to the piece (and it should be noted, given how Scott's last film received so much flak for its casting, The Martian is a refreshingly diverse picture in terms of gender and race, not just in terms of its speaking roles, but also in its casting of extras; pay attention to the crowd scenes in movies and you'll notice that many are comprised almost entirely of white dudes, here the social world actually looks somewhat like the real world, where you don't have to make an effort just to find women and/or people of color). All told, The Martian is a really well put together movie that makes the most of its great premise. I think it falters slightly at the end, delivering a coda that I felt drains some of the emotional impact out of what precedes it, but that's the only real criticism I have of this very good movie.

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