THE MARTIAN Reaches Early Oscar Orbit

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Matt Damon blasts off in THE MARTIAN on 10-02-15.

Here’s a formula you wouldn’t expect to work very often in cinema and television: an entire show centered around one person trying to survive in a hostile environment with only his wits and found materials to help them through. And yet it’s been done before, notably by Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY and more recently by Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY. This time its acclaimed director Ridley Scott is putting the hero though hardship after hardship in THE MARTIAN, an adaption of the popular novel by Andy Weir. Starring Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, a biologist who is part of a manned expedition to Mars, THE MARTIAN is fantastically crafted science fiction and proof that Ridley Scott still has the directorial chops to make must see cinema.

Unlike Hanks, who talked to Wilson the Volleyball to maintain his sanity over much of the film, or Bullock, who is pretty much completely alone even when costar George Clooney pops in midway through her harrowing adventure, Damon is not completely cut off from the rest of his world…just mostly marooned.  Injured and thought to be dead, he is left behind when a severe sandstorm slams the small NASA base on Mars. When he comes around, he discovers he’s the only living thing (that we know of) on Mars. The trip from Mars to Earth takes several years, so his crew mates – Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena, who is seemingly in everything this year), systems engineer Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara, redeeming herself of the Fantastic Four fiasco which she claims to have never even seen herself), and astronauts Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan, who has been in several films this year as well) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) – don’t even know he’s alive until they’re quite a distance away from the red planet. NASA, lead by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), reluctantly gives them the news after Watney makes contact. So while Watney tries desperately to stay alive by turning the mission’s habitat into a hydroponic potato garden NASA is trying to figure out the logistics of mounting either a supply drop to keep him going until the next scheduled manned Mars mission or to rescue him outright and the astronauts are contemplating mutiny should NASA forbid them to go back for their comrade.

At nearly two and a half hours, you’d expect some part of it to drag but I found THE MARTIAN to be an engaging and extremely well-plotted piece of science fiction that borders on the edge of science speculation.  Ridley Scott gets the science mostly right, and what few quibbles one might have are easily overlooked. The NASA team of Teddy Daniels, mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Public Relations liaison Annie Montrose (the surprisingly serious Kristen Wiig) come off as quite believable, desperate to bring our boy home but constrained by governmental red tape. Everyone at some point or another uses humor to see them through this event and that brought authenticity to the finish product. People will do one of two things in a high pressure, high stress scenario like this: turtle up and cry, or make nervous quips and work their butts off. It was abundantly clear what choice was made by nearly every character.

What I liked most about THE MARTIAN is its optimism. In science fiction it’s easy to take the dark path — where things go utterly wrong, most of the crew gets killed, and Watney either never makes it home of comes back only body, his spirit broken. Scott could have used this story as a vehicle to take shots at the ineffectiveness of our government, with NASA being forced to sign Watney’s death warrant because if America loses the whole crew in a rescue attempt gone wrong it would set the space program back so far it may never recover, which suits some of the jerks on Capitol Hill just fine. No, Ridley Scott and the cast follow the path of Gene Roddenberry here, boldly going to a planet humans have never gone before. We find the international science community willing to pitch in however it can, politics be damned. I believe the message here is less about never leaving a colleague behind or the details of survival and rescue but rather a wake-up call to everyone. See what we could be doing if we weren’t wasting so much time, resources, and people fighting wars over ancient ideology and even more ancient dinosaur pulp? There have been ages of great scientific advancement throughout human history, and the case could be made that we’re living in one right now. Since the early 1970s when I was born we’ve seen cars run on electricity (and hydrogen is possible and potentially better), microwaves change the way we eat, televisions more than triple in size while reducing in depth by 95%, cell phones completely revolutionize human communication (for better or worse). And yet the planet and the people on it are angrier, more divided and less cooperative than ever before.

THE MARTIAN reminded me in sprit of the Robert Zemeckis movie CONTACT, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey and based on the work of celebrity scientist Carl Sagan. Sagan was an optimist, an ambassador of science and astronomy to the masses who never seemed to get discouraged by humanity’s penchant for violence and war over scientific achievement and the betterment of the species as well as the planet itself. Ridley Scott is taking up that banner here, reminding us that if we, as citizens not of America, Russia, or China but of Earth, worked together for our common good, the results would literally be out of this world.  THE MARTIAN may be the best sci-fi movie you’ll see this year, and I’m well aware that STAR WARS Episode VII is coming soon. How’s that for optimism?

Late note: THE MARTIAN was somewhat trumped by the real-life discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars. That’s huge news! If Ridley had known that before shooting this film, well, it wouldn’t really make that much difference. It’s not like they discovered the Martian equivalent of Lake Superior. Still, it’s awesome to still be making incredible discoveries involving our neighbor planet, so close on the heels of the fantastic new images of Pluto we’ve been seeing. Our humble solar system is awesome to behold in its own right, and mankind in general can never really rasp the vastness of the galaxy much less the universe. Don’t fret though; a moister Mars doesn’t damage the film’s scientific credibility at all. 

5.0 / 5.0