Friday, October 2, 2015

A Reel Review: THE MARTIAN

Three decades ago, Ridley Scott launched his name into the stratosphere of directors when he helmed two of the most iconic science-fiction films of all time. Since then, Scott has dabbled and played with nearly every filmmaking genre to varying degrees of success. His newest, THE MARTIAN, is a return to the sci-fi world which got him going, and is also a return of that director who once made space so fascinating.

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after a wicked sandstorm, and is presumed dead by his crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie). While Watney tries to survive on his own with very little food and supplies, NASA (led by Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor), tries to coordinate a world-wide rescue mission.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, THE MARTIAN in its early goings sets itself up as an old story in a new setting. It’s a stranded man trying to survive while fighting boredom; a story which shares DNA with Robinson Crusoe or CAST AWAY. But with the setting being the red planet, a place where crops don’t grow and water never falls from the sky or rises from the ground, THE MARTIAN transforms into the ultimate problem-solving movie. Watney, using only his wits and smarts, has to figure out how to make crops grow in a place where nothing grows, and make moisture come out of the air on a planet with no clouds. It’s a science-lover’s dream.

Back on Earth, the film takes an extra step in setting up the dire circumstances Watley is in. NASA, even with all of its resources and scientists, can’t simply launch a rocket the next day. Literally hundreds of days pass as the teams of scientists and administrators tackle the massive logistical problems of sending a rescue mission, all while racing the clock…as they must launch and land a mission before Watney runs out of food. Things go wrong a lot, and THE MARTIAN turns into one hell of a cosmic roller-coaster.

Even with all of the ups and downs and thick science-talk in the script, THE MARTIAN never loses sight of its characters. Watney especially, who obviously gets most of the screen-time, and in a clever move of having him keep a video diary (for his own sanity and for the official record), we learn a lot about the man. His crew, which eventually factors into his rescue and the people back on Earth, are also developed well enough that we can care about how hard they’re trying to bring him home. For a movie that is mostly about one man, it still manages to hold its own as an ensemble piece…all working together for a common goal.

Ridley Scott makes the Martian landscape look deadly and beautiful at the same time. The visual effects are stunning, and the Red Planet looks as real as it ever did. Pacing is brisk, the humor lands in all of the right places, and the sequences which take place in the vastness of space are breathtaking. The goddamn 3D is awesome in some places, but useless in others, and the dimness robs the film of its vibrancy; the whites of the astronaut’s suits look grey and Mars loses a lot of its fire-red.

Matt Damon puts in a marvelous performance. While he only goes deep a few times, there is a never moment that we’re not cheering for him. He is funny and tragic at the same time, and it doesn’t take long for Matt Damon the actor to disappear and Mark Watney the astronaut and scientist take over. The rest of the super-sized cast is excellent.

The finale is an emotional wallop and brings home the notion of love and dedication in a film which mostly feels cold thanks to its lifeless surroundings; both on Mars and in the chilly offices and control rooms of NASA. This is very much a human story, surrounded by a great cosmic adventure which is thrilling and intriguing for both sci-fi fans and film-lovers. As he once did thirty years ago, Ridley Scott has composed a classic in space.


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