by Ken B.
SCREENING NOTE: Viewed in 2D.
It seems like American culture can turn a blind eye towards science every now and then. The glory days of the space program are long behind us. Politicians believe that the existence of snowballs disproves global warming. “Scientist” turns into a codeword for a nebbish recluse in a stained lab coat, and “science fiction movie” is often used interchangeably with the term “superhero film”. Stereotypical “nerd” fashion may have punctured through into mainstream trends in the past couple of years, but the interests of many nerds has been left ignored. Admittedly, I couldn’t care less about the small intricacies of many of the sciences and maths, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a story that uses these elements when crafting a solid adventure. And Ridley Scott’s The Martian succeeds at doing just that.
While never stated out loud, it’s heavily implied that the film takes place in the Not Too Distant Future, in the midst of the latest in a series of manned missions to the red planet. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) commands Ares III, which contains a small crew, consisting of Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and Mark Watney (Matt Damon). An intense sandstorm forces the mission to an abrupt end, and the ship is forced to evacuate the planet, sans Mark, who was hit by a large antenna which disconnected from a piece of equipment. He is presumed dead. NASA Administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) informs a shocked Earth of the news, and the surviving members of Ares III make the long journey home in a state of grief.
Except Mark didn’t die. Able to remove the antenna shrapnel from his body, he takes refuge in one of the stations still standing, and uses the limited resources available, alongside his skills as a trained botanist, to grow crops (potatoes, specifically) in a soil made rich from fertilizer (human, specifically). Of course, potatoes and a stash of freeze-dried astronaut food can’t hold a man forever, and so the next task is to establish contact with a home planet which has no reason to believe he is alive. And after that, an even larger obstacle will have to come into play – how can a mission be formed to bring him home before his supplies run out?
The Martian, based on software engineer Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, is part funny, smart, and thrilling – sometimes all within the same sequence. Urgent scenes of attempting to mount precarious, complicated projects are humorously underscored with fast ‘70s music, courtesy of the collection Commander Lewis had stored in the base that Mark takes refuge in. I didn’t expect to hear ABBA’s “Waterloo” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” firing through the auditorium’s surround sound system when I went to see this movie, but I’m not necessarily complaining. Scott, alongside screenwriter Drew Goddard, is intent on making a film that is multifaceted, while still maintaining a sense of organization and direction.
Matt Damon shines in the lead role. His performance as Mark Watney shows a fully multidimensional figure, chock full of multiple emotions. He’s not just a slate of paralyzed fear, wry wisecracks, or clean resourcefulness – Damon portrays a mixture of all of these characteristics and more, and while far from a believable depiction of what a realistic person would behave like in a situation like this, the character is not directed or written that way, and viewers wouldn’t be particularly interest in seeing someone freak out before dying almost immediately. He also interacts well with his castmates, but it’s worth noting that he isn’t physically onscreen with them a lot, considering that most of the time his character has an entire planet to himself.
The Martian is backed up with phenomenal visuals, although they more often take the form of Dariusz Wolski’s gorgeous cinematography of “Mars” (a desert in Jordan serves as a solid stand-in) rather than big explosions or vessels shooting through space, but the 141 minute movie has its fair share of those. Scott is operating at optimal creative form, keeping audience interest while forming a comparatively intelligent feature, and it looks even better when placed up against a lot of the blockbuster material crossing multiplex screens. There’s been a trend lately of grounded big-budget sci-fi, from Gravity to Interstellar. And if the filmmakers involved with projects like these can keep churning out entertaining-yet-cerebral products, then the status of the genre is all the better for it.