Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian (***)

Directed by Ridley Scott


A story of space survival should not be as airy and fleeting as The Martian is. 2001: A Space Odyssey set the standard, and Gravity perfected it. Outer space is an unkind, asphyxiating experience; out of the control of your meticulously designed mission, your life is literally up in the air. Andy Weir's novel was fantastic popcorn fiction which nonetheless managed to pile on heavy amounts of information and wax intellectual on the myriad of complexities involved in space exploration. His novel was also funny, thrilling and a surprisingly noble statement on humanity. It's probably a more complimentary story than the human race deserves. But if there was any story that could bring a lightness to the usually tempestuous sub-genre of space peril, this book is it. Drew Goddard's adaptation and Ridley Scott's direction of it really bring to light the adventure that Weir put forth, a long-shot rescue mission for a man deserted on a lifeless planet. The Martian is charming in its way, making a considered effort to avoid self-seriousness - the only thing that it truly takes seriously is the brutality of space - and the result is a pre-Fall delight, a movie that takes on the personality of its star, Matt Damon, while also being a surprisingly effective argument for the concept of cooperation and a collective conscience.

Damon plays Mark Watney, a astronaut and botanist aboard the Ares III, a manned mission to Mars, the third of its kind. When Mark and his crew are hit by an intense storm, things go south quickly. Like Gravity, we see how only mere moments can change the atmosphere of space from calm to hostile. The mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders the crew to abort the mission and leave Mars. When Watney is struck by debris and sent flying out of site, his vitals go blank and he becomes unresponsive. He's declared dead, and in the haste of the storm, the rest of the crew is forced to leave without finding his body. One issue, Mark isn't actually dead. Watney wakes up the next day to find that he is alone, with enough food to keep him alive for a few months and the next Ares mission to Mars not scheduled for another several years. He sits in front of a video log and describes his bleak situation, his survival looking all but hopeless, but when he wakes up the next day, his attitude perks up. Realizing he has to keep himself alive for three years, he rearranges the solar panels to provide power to his HAB station and uses his botanical skills (as well as some of the crew's composted feces) to farm a potato field within the HAB. With this in addition to his pre-made meals (meals meant to feed six people, as opposed to one), he begins to hope that he can survive just long enough to wave in the next Ares mission.

Back on Earth, news of Watney's death and the aborted mission of the Ares III is creating headlines, with NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) fielding questions, alongside the NASA spokesperson Annie (Kristen Wiig). It isn't until Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notices movement of the Ares solar panels and brings it to the attention of mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), that the possibility of Watney still being alive is even considered outside of Mars. When they confirm that Watney is alive, fellow mission director Mitch (Sean Bean) feels that the rest of Ares crew should know, but Vincent and Teddy say no. Space travel is dangerous enough, without being racked with the guilt of abandoning a fallen comrade. Aboard the Ares, Lewis along with Martinez (Michael Peña), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and Beck (Sebastian Stan), mourn Watney, before eventually learning like everybody else that he's actually alive. As the news spreads across the world (and parts of space) that Watney is indeed living alone on Mars, the race to rescue him becomes an international news story. Teddy, Vincent, Mitch as well as JPL director Bruce (Benedict Wong) work tirelessly and exhaust many options to try and save Mark. With the help of China, the Ares team and the surprising intellect of an eccentric, socially awkward astronomer named Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), the world watches as they do their best to bring Watney back home.

Who would've figured, after all this time and all these films, that Ridley Scott of all people would be able to craft such a boundless space romp? Scott is considered amongst the names of Scorsese and Spielberg, but the honest truth is that he's been mired in a decade of mediocrity - and I'd make the case that he hadn't made a truly great film since 1982's Blade Runner. He's always been more director-for-hire than auteur, but he is a master of action set pieces. Even his least interesting films of this down period, Exodus: Gods and Kings and Prometheus, have a real sense of cinematic scale. He's always been a filmmaker in search of scenes and characters to put around his action sequences. Scott has been bogged down in a cycle of gruff masculinity and 2013's The Counselor displays the worst of what this attitude could bring. With The Martian, he allows his scenes to play for laughs, and not since 2003's Matchstick Men has he been so willing to let one of his films have this kind of effervescent bounciness. The humor is not forced, but inherent in the story. For the first time in a while, I feel like Scott is working with a screenplay that he actually respects and feels slightly beholden to, and this allows his skill for crafting thrills to have a more fruitful narrative context, making them that much more effective. I'd begun to think that Scott was approaching decrepitude as a director to take seriously, but The Martian is particularly well directed and shows how much fun a movie can be when a skilled director succumbs to good material.

That The Martian spends so much time off of Mars is a testament to the strength of Weir's original story. He did not see Watney's story as Cast Away on Mars. We've never actually visited Mars before, and thus Weir had carte blanche to create any space extremities that he felt necessary to keep the book interesting. But he takes a more pragmatic approach. Watney's survival is more task-based. The true gold in his story is in the details, and that's where the magic of Drew Goddard's screenplay shows itself. NASA is not an institution of individual heroes, but a mass of minds working together, taking problems one at a time, disregarding the intensity of the moment to the solve the problems of the now. There are moments when The Martian's 141 minutes drags a tad, but Goddard does condense the novel considerably, capturing that collective spirit well. Watney is a fascinating character - his wit in the face of his impending doom is truly remarkable - but that doesn't mean that he'll be able to survive his fate on his own. Goddard's script glosses over a lot of the more technical aspects of Weir's book, and it doesn't get nearly as wild about the minutia of space science, but it does show a sequence where Watney nearly blows himself up while trying to make his own water by burning hydrogen and oxygen. This film is not afraid of the science that it puts on display, and is unafraid to even embrace it at times. It even got a stamp of approval from Neil deGrasse Tyson.

It's hard to think of a better Hollywood casting decision this year than Matt Damon as Mark Watney. As a movie star, Damon is relatable, charming, seemingly possessing the opposite of what turns so many people off of his best friend Ben Affleck. Damon's recent, troubling PR moments aside, he's likable partly because he does have true talent. Outside of the Bourne films and schlock like Elysium, Damon is a true actor. It's hard to imagine any movie stars today that would have taken the roles he was given in The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Informant! and do them so well. There are times when he seems incapable of vanity. If Affleck worked so well in Gone Girl because we never give him the benefit of the doubt, then Damon works in The Martian because his stardom plays to our own cultural love of self-deprecation and modesty. Damon has had better performances, but it's hard to think of a role that better encapsulates how we feel about him as a star, how we've viewed his evolution from Good Will Hunting to now. As Jason Bourne, Damon was capable and surprisingly agile, and surprised many (including me) with just how well he was able to use his physicality, but that role only fits him because of that characters amnesia. It's easy to believe that Damon would be uncomfortable as this character, and that's how the performance plays. It would have been easy for another actor to translate Mark Watney's sense of humor for aloofness, an annoying tone deafness to the gravity of his situation. Damon is too transparent to make that mistake, his jokes an obvious defense mechanism, his intelligence an obvious shield against his fear.

It's impossible to try and measure why a movie is "fun". Fun is an objective feeling, and it's the reason why we now have seven Fast and the Furious movies. In the case of The Martian, though, it's refreshing to see a new kind of film become a hit, one that is not reliable on previous franchise pedigree. It's not prepackaged, it's an actual original piece of material that comes to us unfettered. We got something like this last year with Edge of Tomorrow, but nobody went to see that. The Martian seems poised to have a different fate. The truth is that The Martian feels so unique because it is not entirely built on fear. Films tend to reflect their time, and we've been ravaged by bleakness lately in our prestige film and television. Gravity showed just how well a space movie can work if you make it a 90-minute stranglehold - it's structure is built upon a fear not only of death, but of a banal, desolate existence. The Martian finds the life within that desolate existence. The way The Avengers opened our eyes to what these Marvel movies can be, The Martian feels refreshing, despite its process being remarkably simple. It is, in the purest sense, a star vehicle for Damon, but it does work as a genre film, as well as an ensemble. It's a movie both enhanced by its star, but not totally reliable upon him. It's reliance on snark will turn many off, but it's striking tone is what makes it feel particular to the time. Mark Watney is the kind of astronaut millennials can get behind.

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