- Movie Rating -

The Martian (2015)

| October 6, 2015 | 0 Comments

There can’t be a greater story device then that of basic survival. One character battles against the elements as their life hangs by the slender thread solely dependent on their own ingenuity and wit. That’s the crux of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian, a bold and exhilarating red-blooded adventure about a man stranded on the Martian surface 143,000,000 miles from home who must use every resource he has to keep himself alive until somebody comes to pick him up. It’s bold, it’s fun, it’s smart, it’s ingenious, and it contains the only montage I’ve ever seen of a man scrapping a space capsule while ABBA’s “Waterloo” plays on the soundtrack.

Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian tells a story that is simplistic but not simple-minded: The crew of Ares III, a manned mission to Mars, find themselves overwhelmed by a nasty rock storm that forces the crew to evacuate the planet. In the chaos of the blinding wind one crew member is lost and presumed dead. It’s now or never, so the crew has to make a hasty escape and reasonably assumes that their crew member has fallen. Of course, he hasn’t. As the crew head for home, our hero Mark Whatley (Matt Damon) wakes up the next day on the planet’s surface with his oxygen depleted, and a piece of the antenna sticking out of his abdomen.

Shades of Cast Away, Mark discovers that he is the only man on Mars and not only must figure out a way to survive but must also figure out a rational reason to keep talking (Tom Hanks had a volleyball, Damon has easier device of talking to his video log). He moves into the crew’s abandoned man-made habitat where he calculates how much food, water and air he will have to sustain himself for the next four years until the next scheduled Mars mission, arrives on the planet’s surface.

This is where the movie gets interesting. Mark discovers that he has enough food and water for a few weeks, and ascertains that he must figure a way to grow more. But how is he going to plant a garden on a dry planet with no air. This solution is inspired. Plus – good news kids – He’s a botanist!

Much of the movie is taken up with Mark’s adventure in pure survival not only from the hostile environment, but also from the maddening fact that the only music left behind is Disco (That’s why the ABBA song). Step by step, piece by piece we’re with him as he carves out a tiny civilization for himself on a planet that is dead-set against it. The script pays close attention to thoughtful reasonable questions like what would happen if the faceplate on Mark’s spacesuit got cracked? How do you manufacture water in an airtight environment? How can he make contact with Earth when his communication devices were destroyed by the storm? (for that he creates a crude form of ASCII code that is simply inspired) Each new problem becomes a brain exercise for Mark that keeps his mind sharp. Never for a second is any of this dull or uninteresting. The script by Drew Goddard keeps things moving and always ups that stakes. The irony, of course, is that while Mark is forced to close himself up inside the tiny habitat, outside are the wide open spaces of the Martian landscape. The cinematography here is breathtaking, showing us the vastness of the Martian landscapes which look so beautiful and yet so lonely at the same time.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. There are two other parts to this movie. One takes place on the ground as the crew at NASA gets a cryptic message from Mark that he is alive and well. Then – shades of Apollo 13 – they must put their collective heads together to figure out how to retrieve their man from 140,000,000 miles away over the next four years. Again, none of this is ever dull or uninteresting. We get the pure joy of watching smart people coming up with smart solutions.

The other part takes place aboard the returning ship – the one that left Mark behind. We are privy to the crew – led by Jessica Chastain – as they must figure out how they are going to be able to turn the ship around and go back and get him. Of course, that means another four years onboard the ship, plus how are they going to retrieve him when they get there? Everything, in all three parts of this story is based on surgical timing. If one thing goes wrong, the crew could be lost, Mark could be dead and the whole thing could become an international fiasco back home.

All of this, of course, leads up to a third act that – while predictable – has you on the edge of your seat. It’s rare in these days when most movies go on automatic pilot in the third act that we are just as exhilarated by the third act as we were by the first or the second. What is so thrilling here is that director Ridley Scott and his screenwriter Drew Goddard avoid phony manipulation. They don’t manufacture extraneous drama or throw in unnecessary subplots that weigh the story down. There is no villain here, no naysayer. Mark’s situation is all the villain that you need. Plus, unlike last year’s Intersteller, the movie doesn’t drown itself in emotional syrup. Yeah, it’s tragic that Mark is stuck in this place, but for the most part, this is an upbeat movie. It is also nice that the motivation of the people at NASA and the crew aboard Ares III isn’t solely based on politics. They’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do.

What an exhilarating movie this is. What fun it is to watch smart people trying to figure out a nearly impossible task. It’s rare that a movie of this size – and it is a big movie – can keep us so totally involved in what is going on at every single second. Like Gravity and Apollo 13, this is a movie about a dangerous situation that has us riveted at every single moment.  We know the ending but we’re not sure how the movie is going to get there. This is one of the best movies of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.