Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Movie Review: "The Martian" (2015)

© 20th Century Fox

Things rarely go well for Matt Damon in space. Try as he might, he more often than not finds himself in need of rescue. The first big Fall blockbuster is here in the form of a science fiction adventure directed by Ridley Scott, based on the bestselling book of the same name by Andy Weir. It doesn't have the pit-in-the-stomach intensity of Gravity, nor is it the poetry slam that is 2006's Sunshine. No, The Martian is a balanced combination of the two; a slow and methodical commitment from the audience, and there's much to endure to reach the end.

The six person crew of the Hermes make up the Ares III mission to Mars. Deep in their research phase on the planet, a massive storm hits, threatening them and their lives. Hastily, they're forced to abort the mission and return home. During the evacuation, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and assumed dead—the crew, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), has no choice but to leave his body behind. As it turns out, Watney is very much alive, and now the only living thing left on a very hostile, unforgiving planet. Faced with certain death, Watney must use his training and ingenuity to survive until he can make contact with NASA—and hopefully receive help before the next Ares mission touches down in four years.

As multiple stories unfold, centering around bringing Watney home, we're introduced to a dynamic cast of characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, the Director of Mars missions at NASA, butting heads with Head of NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), in a battle to do what's right—or what's feasible—is just the beginning of the tensions on Earth. Despite a compelling cast and fascinating characters, the expectation for character growth should be tossed aside immediately. For once, it's not a necessity for this story. In fact, it would probably be a total waste of time if we were forced to focus on personal revelations during the course of this survival tale.

The fact that this works in the film's favor is a credit to Drew Goddard's gripping script, which has so many levels, transcending genre, as his work often does. A re-envisioning of stories we all thought were tired and overdone (monster movie, Cloverfield, and zombie apocalypse flick, World War Z, come to mind—don't even get me started on Cabin in the Woods), and it's no different for this realistic space travel adventure. The mix of comedy and playful experimentation is bittersweet as it's overlaid with such desperation.

Watney is the right mix of hot head and realist. He's an astronaut, so the built in ego is what not only saves his life, but his sanity. Damon's inherent charm slips nicely into this role, and it makes Watney's conversations with the astronaut video log (i.e. us) that much more optimistic and entertaining. And the bonus is that he doesn't only interact with us. Not to spoil anything, but the creative wheels at NASA are turning just as quickly as Watney's, and to watch them come together to solve problems is a movie highlight.

The movie never lapses into maudlin depression. If you want to watch a movie about a man alone in space going slowly insane, watch Moon. Because this is not that movie, either. Comparisons aside, The Martian is unique in its ability to keep the mood light in the face of such overwhelming obstacles and underwhelming odds of survival. I enjoy a movie that is patient with its subject matter, and no movie's success is more dependent on the audience comprehending the details of time than this one. How many Martian days, how many Earth days... the film's entire structure relies on this being clear from the start. Thankfully, Watney's never far away from reminding us how many SOLs (or "Solar Days") have passed, and how many more there are to go. It doesn't hurt that the soundtrack is full of upbeat disco music, the only music the Commander brought on the trip and the source of more than enough jokes keeping the mood light, and breaking some of the suffocating tension.

In the end, it's science that's treated as a hero, something that usually means a flurry of inhuman attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible. Not here. The science—be it botany or astro-dynamics—is never heavy-handed, and the audience's intelligence is never belittled. Science making sense within the context of the story is a relief, where in most movies it's a confounding mess meant to make the characters seem more brilliant, and thereby, less relatable. I loved every moment of The Martian, and much of that comes from its lack of pandering. A movie for thinking adults that still manages to entertain with thrills and triumphs.

But if I learned one thing from this movie, it's this: Duct tape is your friend. Bring it with you wherever you may go, because it might save your life.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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