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The Martian

Man, first “Everest,” and now “The Martian.” The movie-plex this fall is full of films about places where the tiniest mistake can result in almost certain death. If Hollywood is trying to convince me to never leave my couch again, they’re doing a pretty solid job.

“The Martian” is set in an (apparently) not-that-distant future, where everything is exactly the same as right now, except people have set foot on Mars and someone thinks it’s a good idea to put Kristen Wiig in charge of media relations for NASA. When a team of extremely good-looking astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Kata Mara, Sebastian Stan… seriously, is this a space movie or an Abercrombie & Fitch ad?) are surprised by a storm on Mars, they have to pack up and leave the planet in a hurry, and they leave Matt Damon behind, thinking he’s dead.

He’s not dead, obviously, but he is a botanist, and the rest of the film is about his resourceful attempts to stay alive long enough for someone to come rescue him, which will take about four years. It’s a big problem, and, in his own words, he decides to science the shit out of it. He reclaims his own poop and fertilizes a potato crop with it. He almost blows his face off trying to, literally, science water out of thin air. He’s a resourceful guy, second cousin to MacGyver, and part of the fun of “The Martian” is watching him come up with ingenious solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

This film reminded me a lot of “Apollo 13,” and I think director Ridley Scott intentionally draws the parallels between the two. But they end up being somewhat problematic. The Apollo 13 rescue actually happened, and so watching that movie is full of “gee golly I can’t believe that actually worked” moments that are a lot of fun. But when “The Martian” apes those moments of ingenuity and resourcefulness, it’s telling a story, not reporting on something that actually happened. Do the solutions Damon and NASA come up with actually work? Can you science water out of thin air without blowing your face off? I don’t know. It’s fiction, and I’m not a scientist. Astrophysicist, and, um, astrobotanists (spellcheck keeps telling me that’s not a word. But it will be, Microsoft Word. IT WILL BE) may have a lot of fun with how closely this movie comes to actually workable solutions, but for the rest of us, it’s kind of out of reach. We believe it’s possible because the movie tells us it’s possible, which is the same criteria we use when Superman uses his heat vision to start a campfire.

This is an extremely nuts-and-bolts movie, and would be in danger of falling off the edge into nerd-singularity, if not for Damon’s winning performance and Drew Goddard’s excellent script. It is peppered with humor and human touches, like Damon’s hatred of disco, and the extremely serious problem of lots of potatoes, not enough ketchup. This is Damon’s movie, all the way. There are plenty of other actors who command a pretty penny involved, but there characters are extremely limited – we have a no nonsense NASA director who’s burdened with making tough decisions, a PR gal who think’s he’s nuts, a salty flight commander who doesn’t play by the rules, a kooky scientist who lives on coffee and can’t keep his desk clean or speak in normal English. Even Michael Pena, one of the biggest personalities in Hollywood right now, is pretty muted here. All the focus is on Damon, and thank God he is able to be funny, sober, discouraged, goofy, and angry when needed. I’ve been thinking lately that Damon’s a better bad guy than hero – he’s just too good-looking to be trustworthy. But he turns in a fantastic performance here, and I’m back on his side again.

Unfortunately – but not all that critically – Ridley Scott curiously comes up pretty short in the “space cinematography” department. Movies like “Gravity” and “Interstellar” filled me with a deep sense of wonder and the beauty and immensity of outer space. “The Martian” doesn’t even seem to be trying. The red landscape sets that dominate the film are about as rudimentary as a Flash Gordon set from the ‘60s. For a movie set on Mars, there’s a real dearth of interesting things to look at here. Maybe Scott felt like awe-inspiring scenes of another planet would detract from the awe we’re supposed to be feeling about the human spirit and ability to conquer those planets (at one point, Damon even crows that he has “colonized” Mars. I don’t know that will hit others, but it rang hollow for me.)

“The Martian” wears its themes right on its sleeve, and, just in case you missed it, ends by putting that theme into the mouth of a main character while he is teaching young wannabe astronauts. (The only way to be more obvious would be to print it on the movie poster.) He says, and I’m paraphrasing: You’re going to find yourself in a life-and-death situation, where the odds are stacked against you and your chance of surviving is one in a million. And you can mope and cry and give up, or you can get to work. You solve one problem, and then you solve the next problem, and so on, until you get home. This is a very, very humanistic film, one that believes that all the problems in the universe can be conquered by human ingenuity, stubbornness, and, you know, science. I don’t share that particular worldview – possibly because I watched “Everest” last week, which makes the diametrically opposite point about the human spirit – but I can appreciate a film that finds so much joy in solving problems, overcoming obstacles, and doing the seemingly impossible. “The Martian” doesn’t quite measure up to the movie it most wants to be like, but it’s entertaining and uplifting all the same, and an enjoyable flick.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

2 Responses

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  1. Rikker said

    Really? I thought the movie was SUPER pretty and some of the best 3D cinematography around. The initial dust storm, particularly, was the first 3D in my life where I actually felt like the objects were “in” the room. Looking around, it absolutely appeared that the theater had filled with flying debris.

    The book is, surprisingly, funnier and more dramatic. While the movie is entirely faithful (except for the tacked-on ending), probably half of the emergencies faced in the book were missing on screen.

  2. I didn’t see it in 3D. I don’t really like 3D. Maybe I should have.

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