Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New movie review: The Martian

Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars in director Ridley Scott's The Martian.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a talented person work. It really does not matter the craft. Watching a skilled carpenter build a table can be as pleasing as watching a concert pianist perform or a top chef prepare a delicious meal. It should not be terribly revolutionary to suggest competence is appealing. It is one of the reasons the spy genre is so durable. Spies are ceaselessly competent. They accomplish with ease tasks that would confound us mere mortals, and that is why they are so damned fun to watch.

There are no spies in The Martian, but there is competence to spare, and as a result, the film is a joyous exercise in smart, big-budget moviemaking. From director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is marooned on Mars after a storm forces a speedy evacuation by the crew of the Ares III mission. Thinking Watney has died in the storm, the rest of the crew takes off and heads back to Earth.

When their error is discovered by mission control, an all-out rescue effort begins, and the film cuts back and forth between the frantic attempts by NASA to reach the stranded astronaut and Watney’s pragmatic, life-extending measures. The film settles into a rhythm early. Problems arise, and intelligent people solve them. Another problem demands another solution, and so on until either Watney is saved or a problem comes up that cannot be solved.

Mercifully, there is no villain in the film – no aliens, no shadowy government agencies, no one working at cross-purposes to the characters. The enemies are time and space. Watney has limited resources and infinite space. He must survive on his own long enough to allow the rescue mission to reach him. A botanist, he devises a way to farm potatoes on the once-barren planet. This will buy him some time. It is up to mission control back home to solve the space problem, which is that they have a lot of space to cover to get to Watney.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Martian.
Populated by an appealingly eclectic and talented cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, and Kristen Wiig, the ground team at NASA gets to work. Under incredible pressure and with no margin for error, they propose to send an unmanned probe to Mars with supplies to keep Watney alive until the next planned manned mission arrives. When this fails, it falls to the crew of the Ares III, still on their way back to Earth, to decide if they will risk their lives to attempt a rescue of the man they left behind.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who made his name writing intricate, puzzle-box-type stories such as Cabin in the Woods and the television show Lost, Goddard’s screenplay is straightforward and workmanlike. More Apollo 13 than 2001: A Space Odyssey, the script is less interested in the meaning of life than in the extension of it. For The Martian, the former approach works, and Goddard and Scott smartly give all the action set pieces and narrative developments room to breathe rather than overstuffing the spaces between with needless philosophizing.

Movies like this work best when allowed to bask in silence, and on Mars, silence is the one thing not in short supply. While the top-flight cast also includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, and Kate Mara, among others, the film lives and dies with the lonely, life-and-death struggle of Watney and with Damon’s portrayal of the stranded astronaut. Long stretches of the film are inhabited by just Watney and the video diary he keeps, partially for the record and partially for his sanity. In these moments of quiet solitude, the audience is allowed to feel his grief and isolation but also his hope.

Recent comments in the press aside, Damon has a charming, everyman-like quality about him that makes you want to root for him. The character is witty and affable – two traits Damon has excelled at displaying in nearly all his roles – but the dire nature of his situation is never once out of mind. Damon’s well calibrated performance is a perfect balance of light and dark, playful and practical, which is the same tightrope the film itself walks so well.

Scott has fallen out of critical favor as a director in recent years, releasing a string of indifferently received films (A Good Year; American Gangster; Body of Lies; Robin Hood) followed by three highly divisive ones (Prometheus; The Counselor; Exodus: Gods and Kings). There was nothing necessarily wrong with these works – I happen to love Prometheus – but something was missing from most of them. With The Martian, Scott proves he is the same talented director who long ago brought us Alien and Blade Runner, as well as the relatively more recent Gladiator.

Here, Scott provides the same sense of awe-inspiring wonder that has marked his best work, but it is buoyed by an inspiring story of genuine human accomplishment. The Martian vistas are the kind of breathtaking visual achievement Scott can conjure on a whim, and this movie is full of beautiful images, but its greatest success is its people.

Working from Goddard’s script and Weir’s story, Scott astonishes with more than just visuals. Think how rare that is to see a big, effects-driven movie, which this clearly is, and to be amazed by something more than how pretty everything is. In The Martian, we are amazed simply to watch smart people confront impossible odds with determination and hope.

See it? Yes.

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