Thursday, October 22, 2015

Surviving Space: The Martian Balances Practical Science And Entertainment Shockingly Well!

The Good: Decent performances, Interesting characters, Good pacing for the relative lack of plot
The Bad: Glossed-over characters/initial pacing seems very fast
The Basics: The Martian does what several of the recent science fiction space exploration films have failed to do in creating a plausible narrative that remains entertaining.

Whatever NASA is currently spending on advertising - if it even has an advertising budget at this point - it might as well reroute that money. Hollywood films are produced with a much more significant budget and between Gravity (reviewed here!), Interstellar (reviewed here!) and now The Martian, the enthusiasm for practical space travel seems to be the highest it has been in years. Despite all of the initial hype for Gravity and the fantastic elements that made Interstellar a box-office hit, the superior film of the three is The Martian.

I was drawn to The Martian based on the strength of director Ridley Scott's prior science fiction work, Prometheus (reviewed here!) and I was somewhat surprised that my appreciation of that film did not get me excited about any of Scott's projects in between. I was pretty psyched to go into The Martian without any knowledge about the film outside the tagline on the movie poster and the fact that Matt Damon was the lead in it. That led me to the rare pleasant surprise of a survival film whose ending was not immediately apparent the moment the initial concept of the film was revealed.

Eighteen days into the Ares III exploration of Mars, NASA suddenly detects a storm that will sweep over the mission's landing site. The crew of the lander is notified minutes before the storm hits and they evacuate the land station for the lander. In the process of struggling through the storm, astronaut and mission botanist Mark Watney is impaled by a transmitter antenna and blown back. Mission Commander Melissa Lewis opts to save the remaining crewmembers by lifting off after trying everything they can to search for him in the space of a minute. The rocket lifts off and the next morning, Watney wakes up to his suit's oxygen alarm going off. He makes it back to the shelter, removes the metal that pierced him and his suit and he resolves to survive for the four years needed before the next manned mission to Mars arrives. He builds a greenhouse, creates a water supply, and plants potatoes.

On Earth, NASA's director Teddy Sanders declares Mark dead and the director of the Ares project, Vincent Kapor starts to look ahead on funding the subsequent missions to Mars. When Mindy Park at the satellite station on Earth notices movement at the Ares III landing site, Kapor and Sanders work to control the narrative and figure out how they may best help Watney out. Sanders remains adamant that the crew of the Ares III not be told Watney is alive (as they are not equipped to mount a rescue mission and NASA does not want to risk losing them in such an attempt). Months in, though, Watney tries to figure out how to get to the Ares IV landing site (some 3500 kilometers away) and how to communicate with Earth (which he does by scavenging the old Pathfinder probe. But as NASA prepares to drop supplies to Watney, the airlock to the greenhouse blows off and Watney's chances of surviving until supplies can arrive plummet. When Chinese scientists step in to assist with the problem of resupplying Watney, the mission has the potential to change and everyone involved is faced with critical choices.

The Martian is a geek's dream for a practical space film that also manages to be entertaining. Until very late in the film, the practical problems are practically addressed. Unlike Gravity which relied a great deal on spectacle, The Martian features scientists who are utilizing mathematics and science to solve problems. The Martian has spectacle, but it is minimized in favor of quiet moments, references to budget problems, and a surprising amount of time where Matt Damon's Mark Whatney talks to himself.

What The Martian does exceptionally well is balance the story of Watney on Mars with the rescue attempts being made by the people on Earth. Initially, Watney's story seems ridiculously simple. He finds himself abandoned on Mars with all of the supplies he actually needs and the moment he sees the first potato plant growing, it's hard to feel a sense of urgency about him being lost in space. In fact, the two biggest plot issues seem to be with the set-up and the solution.

Mark Watney gets left behind on Mars in a very reasonable way. The mission commander makes a tough call and opts to save five lives over prolonging the search for Watney. The storm that causes the initial conflict is incredibly severe and seems to come out of nowhere, such that the team barely makes it from the habitat to the lander ship. That's a tough conceit to buy right off that bat; that NASA either so blunders the weather models or that the Mars team doesn't have weather monitoring instruments of their own forces the film's premise. As well, the moment Watney is discovered alive on Mars, the question becomes how to help him survive or rescue him, which is reasonable. While one might expect a film to not have to address all contingencies, in a film as science-laden as The Martian, it seems odd that no one on screen pitches that Ares IV would come with a more advanced rover to pick Watney up at the Ares III site. Unburdened by the thoughts of how to move himself to the Ares IV site, Watney could have been more cautious and, perhaps, done some things like focus on building a secondary greenhouse to double down on his survival chances.

All that said, The Martian is otherwise gripping. Matt Damon does an excellent job of playing an astronaut who retains his humanity and wry sense of humor in the face of exceptional odds against his very survival. It takes a pretty impressive performer to carry a film on one's own, but Damon pulls it off. Every minute one spends watching Watney try to figure out how to survive is gripping.

Watney's story is balanced - mostly effectively - by the NASA storyline where Teddy Sanders basically acts like the average Star Trek captain and forces engineers to do things faster than they are comfortable and with a seemingly unlimited budget (budget problems are referenced, but what the film lacks is a single, key scene with the American President where Sanders bluntly states that he does not want to be the President who let an American astronaut die in space out of respect for budgetary concerns). Jeff Daniels plays Sanders with credibility, as Chiwetel Ejiofor does as Vincent Kapoor. Kristen Wiig is entirely underused, as are the talents of most of the crew of the Ares III mission. And there is something unsettling, these days, about watching a film where Sean Bean plays a character that has every reason to be expected to survive the film.

Ultimately, with minimal flare, Ridley Scott paints a picture of what space exploration looks like when smart people work together to survive a very basic problem with finite resources. And Scott and Damon make it entirely watchable and entertaining.

For other films featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, be sure to see my reviews of:
Doctor Strange
12 Years A Slave
Children Of Men
Four Brothers
Love Actually


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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