The Martian ***1/2
One liner review:
A very cool sci fi movie that takes what Gravity did just two years ago, and brings it to the next level.
A fantastic adventure, this movie takes the Cast Away structure of a man trapped alone and finds all sorts of ways to spice it up and make it work. The man is Mark Watney, an astronaut on Mars who has been left there by his crew after a storm hits and they are convinced that he has been killed. Turns out they were wrong. The situation Watney is now in becomes all about survival. His crew cannot just turn around and come back for him, and so Watney is there on his own, where he will most likely remain for years. He runs into all sorts of problems with this, starting with how to get food and grow crops on a planet without any water. Other problems include lack of heat, and getting in communication with NASA. For every problem Watney encounters, there is a pretty interesting solution. And the movie is not only about this one man, but also takes us into the NASA meetings where they are trying to figure out what to do and exhaust all possible options. We even get to spend a good amount of time with Watney’s crew, seeing how they deal with the news that they have left one of their own behind. This movie is a technical achievement with a great story and lots of humor. It’s a pretty tremendous film.
Space movies have come a long way over the past three years or so. Gravity is quite possibly the movie that started it all. It certainly started this resurgence, anyway. Before that the closest we had to realistic outer-space films were alien movies like Prometheus or horror movies like Event Horizon and Sunshine. But Gravity legitimized the genre and won a ton of Oscars to prove it. The following year, we got Christopher Nolan’s foray into the outer space sci-fi movie with Interstellar. And now, just one year after that, we get the Martian. These are smart sci fi movies that exist in the realm of somewhat believable circumstances, as opposed to alien monster films (which are more escapist fun, but hardly realistic.) If the change in the trend is indicative of our society, than its definitely saying something good about where things are right now. The newfound fascination with plausible space movies has certainly led to a running tab of creative and interesting films.
The Martian is made by people who have been buzzing around this genre for a little bit of time now. Matt Damon is featured in Interstellar, and director Ridley Scott made Prometheus (not to mention the very first movie in the Aliens series.) For both of them, this movie is a major achievement. For Scott, it was a very much needed hit. This director has fallen pretty flat over the past ten years. His last good movie was American Gangster, nearly a decade ago. Since then, it’s been more of the Exodus: Gods and Kings or The Counselor kind of route. I enjoyed Prometheus, but it sure did receive a lot of hate from fans who were expecting something more. People were starting to question Ridley Scott and whether or not he still had it. The Martian is the movie that proves that he does.
Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney. He is part of a crew on Mars, sent there by NASA to do tests and experiments on the planet. When the film opens, he’s out there on the red planet, setting things up before the crew boards ship and leaves to head back to earth. Watney is, of course, planning to be with them. But then a sandstorm strikes and debris is sent flying everywhere. Some of it hits Watney. It would have been nice to get a closer shot of this, and really see what was happening, but instead we just see debris collide with a figure out in the distance, and then the figure go flying into the air. We are told that it was Watney. The visuals of Mars and the characters moving around on the planet are terrific, but this debris attack could have certainly been done better (like it was in Gravity.) It turns out to be one of the only flaws in the movie.
After Watney is struck and somewhere out there, in the storm, the crew tries to get through to him. Led by Captain Melissa Lewis, (Jessica Chastain,) they keep trying to reach him, but he’s completely out of contact. When there’s no answer from his end on the radio communication line, most of the crew members insist that Watney is dead. With the storm getting worse by the moment and their window of opportunity to get off the planet closing in on them, the crew decides to take off and leave the Mars. It isn’t until the storm is long gone that Watney regains consciousness and we learn that he is actually still alive.
Watney has suffered some serious injury during the storm. He has been impaled by a flying object, and he wakes up facedown on the planet and in serious pain. We follow him as he makes his way back to a station the astronauts had set up. Here he has no choice but to operate on himself and remove wherever objects have cut through his skin and are still stuck inside of him. We’ve seen moments like this before (such as in Ronin,) but it’s still kind of gross every time. Once he has started to recover a little, Watney figures out what he needs to do to survive. His first mission, once realizing that he really is alone here, is to figure out what to do with the limited food he has available to him. He goes through the amount of meals there are and calculates how many “sols,” (days) these will last him. When it becomes painfully obvious that it won’t be enough, he decides he’s going to have to find a way to grow food himself. The bad news… he’s on a planet where nothing grows. The good news… he’s a botanist, and actually knows what he’s doing. If anyone can pull this off, it’s him.
All of this is told to us with Watney talking into a computer, recording his transmissions. We know that neither NASA nor his crew can watch these transmissions, so who exactly he’s recording these for is never established. That’s okay, though, because allowing him to talk to us, in some capacity, makes it much easier to deal with his character alone than it would be if he just never spoke. Whenever there’s a movie like this, the character has to talk to someone. In Cast Away, it was a volleyball named Wilson. In Moon, it was a computer with a smiley face on it. The movies idea to have him just talk to a computer screen, recording messages, really helps solve this problem nicely. And Watney sure does have a lot of problems that he needs to explain his solutions to. First off, he has to figure out a way to make water to grow food. He does this by combining hydrogen and oxygen and then heating it up. Only in order to heat it up he needs to find something that will burn and everything that NASA has supplied them with is fire resistent. He uses some property left by the other astraunauts to solve this problem. And when he starts riding around in the rover, moving across the planet, he runs into a problem involving a lack of heat. It’s too cold in the vehicle and he is using all of its power to heat himself up. His solution here is to dig up some dangerous, radioactive material, put it right behind him while he’s driving, and hope for the best.
While we continue to experience problems and find interesting solutions like these, with Watney on Mars, there is a lot happening back on earth as well. Once they find out the Watney is still alive, the good people at NASA are faced with some very serious questions. One is how to get him back to earth. Another is how to get supplies up to him. And then there’s the question about his crew, and whether or not they should tell those people, who are still out in space, that they left one of their own behind. The crew is in contact with NASA and long before they are told what happened to Watney, he finds a way to get in touch with NASA himself. Mark uses a moving camera that NASA can control. He sets up two signs, on either sides of each other. One says yes, and the other no. Mark types a question to NASA and then they move the camera to point to one of the signs, that has their yes or no answer.
This is a cool first attempt at communication, but soon Mark has come up with something even better. He looks through books about code and finds a short alphabet, where certain symbols represent multiple letters or sounds. Then he writes each of these symbols on a plate and attaches the plates to sticks, so that they stand up in the ground. He arranges the sticks in a circle and places the camera in the middle. Now when he asks a question, NASA can spin the camera to spell out the answer. While all of this is happening, Mark is also successfully growing food, using all of the means at his disposal to produce something. All seems to be going well until another storm hits, wrips apart his growing room, and freezes whatever plants were inside of it.
At one point Mark does ask the people at NASA about his crew. He wants to know what their reaction was, when they found out that he is still alive. That’s when NASA reveals to him that they haven’t told the crew yet. Mark is naturally furious. Eventually they decide to let the crew know, and not long after that, Mark finds a way to get in touch with them himself, through typed messages. Watching the crew debate who will be the one from their side to talk to him first is funny. And then the crew has to make a decision about whether to go back for him or not. Especially since NASA is ordering them not to, and that if they defy NASA’s orders, it will be considered mutiny. NASA, meanwhile, attempts to send some supplies up to Mark, but rushes the mission without testing it out first, and finds some failed results.
Donald Glover, from the TV show Community, shows up with a radical idea about how to make everything work, including the supplies, Mark getting off the planet, and the crew showing up to rescue him. From there, the final stages of the film go into effect, and it’s pretty fantastic. There is a very exciting climax here, punctuating an already great movie. Aside from being smart, funny, and incredibly entertaining, the movie really looks amazing. The red planet is wildly cinematic, and Mark travels all around it, exploring. This location contributes to some wonderful scenery, and like Gravity, this is a very cool movie to see in 3D. There are minor flaws here and there, (the debris strike during the storm, and when the woman at NASA notices the change in rover location and determines that to mean Mark is still alive, the photos could have also been shown more clearly,) but none of them really hinder the forceful momentum this film has going for it. Matt Damon is terrific, as could be expected, but the real surprise is director Ridley Scott, demonstrating his skill, which has been dormant for so long now, many of us forgot. He is a great filmmaker, and The Martian definitely proves to be a terrific movie.