Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Martian

2015's THE MARTIAN is a movie created by technicians, not artisans. During his nearly forty years in the chair director Ridley Scott could in fact be called both, sometimes on the same film.  He was the right guy for this project, what with his resume including ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and the unfortunate PROMETHEUS.  The earlier films are works of art, with advanced technology as the setting, the backdrop to more complex themes.  In THE MARTIAN it's all about the tech, as it is what facilitates the survival of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars after a freak accident and left for dead by his crewmates.

You could rightly argue that it is Watney's smarts that allow him to use that tech to not die of starvation, to not remain stranded in a most hostile environment.  I don't consider it a spoiler to tell you that he does in fact make it.  Do you honestly believe 20th Century Fox would release a big ticket item like this, a calculated crowd pleaser that featured the death of its protagonist? "Bring Him Home" the poster read.  It smacked of a feel gooder designed to stir the hearts of filmgoers the world over.  The sort of film people watch to forget their mortgages and dead end jobs. Escapism.  Fine.  But as I've said so many times in this space, I need more.

More? Fans of THE MARTIAN would explain that the film has it all: hair scrape adventure, humor, great f/x, big stars.  It's all true, and the nearly two and one-half hour running time never felt that long.  For me, having Watney's character experience, oh I dunno, a bit more existential crises might've made this film worthy of all its accolades, including a nomination for Best Picture.  I guess I wanted it to be more like SOLARIS, or SILENT RUNNING, or even MOON. Scott's movie has more in common with CAST AWAY, the Tom Hanks picture which found him attempting to survive alone on a remote island.  I did like that one too, and it in fact had meatier drama with which to work.

Damon's character spends the film making video recordings as he "sciences the shit out of" various dilemmas, like how to grow potatoes to extend his food supply.  Or how to create water.  Or create a link to NASA via an old Pathfinder roving probe.  Drew Goddard's script, an adaptation of Andy Weir's same titled book,  provides Watney with all the expected problems and then some.  I do enjoy watching intelligent characters use their brains instead of firearms and fists to solve problems.  The sequences in APOLLO 13 where NASA employees had to quickly devise methods for their impaired astronauts to survive were very satisfying, and reminded me of a physics competition I was involved with in high school.  We were given a handful of materials and asked to create a vehicle out of them that could carry and accelerate considerable mass.  THE MARTIAN has some moments like this, and were my favorites.

But apparently unlike in the book, Watney never seems to acknowledge the weight of his plight.  Is this just eternal optimism? I didn't entirely buy it.  Other than a few voiceovers where the astronaut makes a few observations on loneliness and the landscape itself, we're treated to jokes and pop culture refs. We needed more Jack London and less Matt Damon, honestly.   Watney's character was never developed to my satisfaction.  Nor were the other crew members who learn two months later (as they make their way back to Earth) that their bud is still alive.  Jessica Chastain plays the Mission Commander with about as much emotion as Charlize Theron did (as an android) in PROMETHEUS.  Back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, uncharacteristically stiff) is shown to be essentially a shallow, spineless beaurocrat, and Kristen Wiig is absolutely wasted as PR lady Annie Montrose.

THE MARTIAN is a supremely well crafted and enjoyable film.  The shots of Mars (filmed in Jordan) are stunning. The use of ingenuity should be inspiration to us all and is always great to see in a film in an era where everyone is trying to be louder and create more destruction.  The nerds save the day! But this could've been something extraordinary with a little more insight, a deeper perspective into what may be one of the most unsettling scenarios of all: being alone millions of miles from home.  When Elton John's "Rocket Man" is more profound than your movie, maybe you need to rethink it all.

P.S. - As with many sci-fi movies, a chorus of remarks as to how inaccurate the science depicted is was quite omnipresent for THE MARTIAN.  When NASA states that the film is fairly plausible in that regard, the hordes of anonymous "experts" tend to sound that much more pathetic.

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