The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Martian” is a celebration of human intelligence.  It is a film about smart people using their brains to figure out enormous problems involving science, math, and bureaucracy. The film attempts to be hard science fiction, while not being all that speculative.  It fits somewhere between the grand ideas of a “Gattaca” and the action movie nonsense of an “Independence Day”, and follows up on the heels of “Gravity” and “Interstellar” in showcasing the tenacity of the human spirit towards survival.  It’s certainly a lark to see a big budget sci-fi film and the main draw of the film is finding out how smart people deal with seemingly impossible problems. This is an action movie where most of the action is inside the heads of geniuses.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future (maybe 30-40 years) NASA has sent a mission to Mars. When a freak storm hits the planet (I’m told that because of Mars’s thin atmosphere that this storm is the least believable thing in the film) one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind when the crew decides to leave the planet early.  Injured, but still alive, Mark makes his way back to the temporary habitat set up for the astronauts to live in while on Mars.  The habitat was designed to last 31 days and has enough food and water to last about 6 people that amount of time.  There is now only one person, but with a 4 year travel time between Earth and Mars, Mark faces a seemingly impossible goal of keeping himself alive on limited resources for a very long time until a rescue can arrive.

Mark is not the most likeable guy.  He’s a smart ass and bit sarcastic, and sometimes quite funny, but something about the character rubbed me the wrong way, which probably kept me from being too invested into whether he lives or dies.  The character is obviously smart, and watching how he figures out ways to create water and grow food with the limited resources from the planet and from NASA is quite astonishing because, well, only a very smart individual who knows a lot about science and NASA’s equipment would think of these things.

Unlike “Gravity”, a film that makes us feel as lost and adrift in space as Sandra Bullock’s character in that film, we as an audience never quite feel stuck up on Mars with Mark.  This is probably because at last half of the film takes place on Earth with the NASA people working to get him home.  Jeff Daniels is in full “The Newsroom” mode as Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA, who unlike the clichéd evil government bureaucrats of other films, is played as a realistically pragmatic guy who tries to do the best thing while sticking to the legal and ethical obligations of his position and his agency.  His decisions, which sometimes place him in the de facto role of villain, always feel like decisions that would be reasonable and not-heartlessly made by an intelligent person in his position.  I like not going for an easy villain.

The main NASA employee who commands the Get Watney Home mission is Vincent Kappor, played well by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the Earthbound parallel to Mark that is trying to figure out how to get satellites and food supplies ready and sent to Mars, as well as different contingency plans, and using his knowledge of materials at Mark’s disposal to help Mark out with tech issues that are outside of the stranded astronaut’s particular intellectual purview.

Without knowing much about hard science, the logistics of space travel, or surviving on a harsh and uninhabitable planet, I will say that the film’s science at the very least FEELS realistic.  If the film fudges some possibilities and facts here and there, it does so without breaking this feeling of realism and thus working within the slightly futuristic world the film is creating.  All films, especially of a sci-fi nature, are going to contain certain far fetched elements, but “The Martian” never set off my layman’s bullshit alarm, and this feeling of realism helps ground the film so that it stays as a story about the characters and not about various flights of fantasy.

“The Martian” is a very good film which will engross you and make you celebrate that some people on this planet, and some day maybe another, are a lot smarter than you are.  If the film didn’t effect me as strongly as I’d like to, it is because Mark is sometimes off-putting as a character, and by choosing to show the NASA side of the situation, we never feel “trapped” with Watney in the same way we felt trapped during “Gravity” right along with the stranded character.  In that way, this new film is not as immersive as that previous film.  Still, the world of the film is a very good one, with the vast landscapes of Mars looking very convincing, and the offices of NASA attempting to look somewhat realistic (look at their kinda-crappy break room).  Mostly, I just like the fact that we have a big Hollywood picture that is about smart people using their smarts, as opposed to big people using their guns.  I’m not against a good action movie, but the United States already has a lot of people who want to be gun-toting vigilantes.  It doesn’t have enough people who want to be scientists and engineers. B+

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