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THE MARTIAN Movie Review – Saving Private Damon All Over Again

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Many men, good men, have died so that Matt Damon could live. Not in real life, of course, but the cinematic one, most notably in Steven Spielberg’s ode to the “Greatest Generation” (the generation that won World War II), Saving Private Ryan. But that was then — almost twenty years ago — and this is now, the not-so-bright future where a manned mission to Mars seems not just improbable, but impossible. Thankfully, that’s where the Hollywood Dream Factory steps in, offering the equivalent of a mission to Mars and back in two hours and twenty minutes, courtesy of Ridley Scott’s (Prometheus, Blade Runner, Alien) adaptation of Andy Weir’s bestselling speculative fiction novel, The Martian. Overflowing with the most seamless, if not always awe-inspiring, visual effects Hollywood money can buy, a who’s who of ultra-talented actors culled from one or two different (or more) generations, and a taut, tense thriller plot that delivers practically everything moviegoers could possibly want from a 21st century “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (not, it should be added, to be confused with the 1964 film of the same name).

Scott wastes little time in marooning Damon’s character, Mark Watney, an A-list botanist accompanying the first mission to land on Mars, Ares III. As Watney trades good-natured banter with Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Ares III’s main pilot, and less good-natured banter with their by the book, no-nonsense, cliché-in-a-spacesuit commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), a freak dust storm hits, forcing Lewis to scrub the mission and order the crew to head for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV for short). A wayward antenna disk not only knocks out Watney, it destroys the biometer in his suit, essentially convincing Lewis and the crew that the missing Watney perished in the dust storm. They manage to escape, leaving an unconscious Watney to wake up hours later with a breach in his suit, a wound in his side (how Christ-like of him), and an enormous problem to resolve: How to survive on Mars until the next manned mission arrives four years later.

 

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With only a year’s worth of rations to live on, Watney puts on his botanist’s baseball cap (figuratively speaking) and decides to “science the sh*t out” of his problem, beginning with growing food (potatoes) on a barren, inhospitable planet, obtaining enough water to sustain his crop and himself, reacquiring communication with Earth (that damaged, destroyed antenna again), fighting off despair and depression (constantly doing science helps), and later, getting to the Ares IV’s designated landing area 3,200 kilometers away in a solar-powered rover that can only travel 30-35 miles on a single battery charge. They’re all seemingly insurmountable problems, but Watney has a big brain and a nearly unshakeable belief in the power of science and reason to out-think any problem, no matter how big or how small. And with Damon giving a not unexpected movie star turn as Watney, equal parts charismatic and grounded in real (or real seeming) human emotion, Watney’s survival looks almost like a sure thing.

Of course, Scott and his screenwriter, Drew Goddard (DaredevilThe Cabin in the Woods), working from Weir’s novel, don’t let Watney off that easy. They throw one damn problem after another (and another) at Watney, keeping him always one step away from certain death and moviegoers in almost complete enthrallment. The tension barely dissipates when The Martian changes locales, seguing to NASA, first as the head of NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), reacts to Watney’s reported death and later, once the Mars Mission Director, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and other senior staff, discover Watney isn’t dead after all. In turn, that puts the onus on NASA to save Watney by any means necessary, up to and including sending an unmanned rocket to deliver a food dump and informing the crew of the Ares III mission of Watney’s survival, a decision that draws Sanders into direct conflict with another senior member of his staff, Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean, in auto-pilot gruff mode).

 

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The Martian doesn’t play up Sanders’ antagonism into cartoon villainy. He’s motivated by a sincerely held belief in NASA’s overarching mission and the future of the space program. He also doesn’t want to risk the lives of the Ares III crew (the main rationale for not informing them), but ultimately his better nature wins out, a thematic throughline that depicts the near future in an almost utopian light. There’s no interpersonal conflict between members of the crew or the NASA staff, just well grounded, honestly held beliefs. Watney’s indomitable, unbreakable spirit isn’t so much an anomaly as it is a reflection and distillation of unselfish, compassionate humanism (even if the “All for One, One for All” ethos is really an “All for Mark, Mark for All” ethos in practice). Even China, our closest rival after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gets in on the act, suggesting that the common good, especially the common good as perceived by science-based rationalists will win out (and over) the cramped, limited biases of ethnocentrism and nationalism, ideas that on their own should be applauded.

All that utopian humanism wouldn’t mean a thing to mainstream audiences, however, unless it was mixed through a recognizably thriller-style plot and the spectacle to match. Minus the occasional macro shot of Watney’s habitat or rover taken from thousands of feet in the air, mimicking satellite imagery, or one of Watney’s rare moments of despair and isolation (v-logging his exploits and Lewis’ disco music collection keep him occupied when he isn’t in problem-solving mode), Scott keeps The Martian grounded on Watney’s predicament or his earthbound colleagues furiously working to extricate him from said predicament. As such, The Martian lacks the visual or kinetic poetry of other lost in space/marooned on a desolate planet entries like 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the semi-justifiably maligned Mission to Mars. Nothing in The Martian matches Mission to Mars’ unfairly forgotten space walk sequence, but Scott comes close. In the end, however, it’s not the set pieces or the visual effects moviegoers will remember most, but the characters at the center of a very human drama.

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The Author

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending NYU undergrad (politics and economics major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he decided a transcontinental move to California, specifically San Francisco, was in order. Since Mel began writing nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 film-related reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.