The Martian

Matt Damon takes a break.

Matt Damon takes a break.

(2015) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peňa, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Nick Mohammed, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Enzo Cilenti, Jonathan Aris, Gruffudd Glyn, Naomi Scott. Directed by Ridley Scott

The exploration of other planets is a dangerous undertaking, maybe the most dangerous thing that humankind can do. So many things can go wrong. When compounded with human error, life or death can rest on a single decision made not always by ourselves but by others as well.

The Ares III manned mission to Mars is going well into its 18th day but then mission control in Houston detects an oncoming storm, a massive one that will force the crew to end their mission early and blast off into space. Already the escape vehicle is tipping over dangerously in the Martian sand. As the crew struggles to prepare for an emergency liftoff, the storm hits with brutal wind force. A piece of debris slams into astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) who is blown into the storm. His beacon and life signs indicator both are off. After a brief search in the storm fails to turn up Mark or his body, expedition leader Melissa Lewis (Chastain) is forced to leave Mars without him.

Except Mark isn’t quite dead yet, to quote Monty Python. Yes, he’s injured and his suit electronics non-functional but he’s alive. He gets back to the habitat and assesses his situation. He has food rations and water for a further 30 days but it will be four years before NASA can mount a rescue mission, assuming they realize that he’s still alive. As Mark says in his video logs that are to chronicle his struggle to survive, he’ll have to science the shit out of things in order to create drinkable water out of rocket fuel, grow potatoes from some vacuum packed spuds in an environment where nothing grows (let’s just say that he utilizes both the shit and the science), and manage to keep the atmosphere breathable in the habitat. It’s a daunting task.

Mark has a doctorate in botany so he’s a pretty smart guy. However, he knows that any one of a million things can go wrong. He has to contact NASA and once they realize that he’s alive, he has to stay that way until they can get there. However, it isn’t going to be just Mark on the line; when his crew discovers he’s still alive, they will put their own lives on the line to get their colleague and teammate back and what could be more heroic than that?

Ridley Scott is a prolific director who has a history of making screen worlds come to life, from ancient Rome to rural Provence to a doomed spaceship. Here the Red Planet – desolate and arid, although a mere four days before this movie opened NASA announced that water flowed on Mars – becomes a living creature, deadly as a cobra and majestic as a moose. Shot in Tunisia on red desert sands, The vistas are bleak and alien but realistic.

He got NASA’s cooperation on the movie which while it doesn’t come off as a two hour advertisement for the space agency, does portray it in a heroic light in much the same way Apollo 13 did. NASA doesn’t do movies that don’t have the right science; here they made something like 50 pages of notes in order for the solutions to the various problems that Mark Watney come up with are grounded in real science and are the lot of them quite ingenious.

Scott also had the good sense to put a stellar cast in place. While this is Damon’s movie without a doubt (more on that in a minute), he gets plenty of support including Daniels as a beleaguered NASA chief, Wiig as a press officer trying to spin the story the right way, Bean as a project manager whose first and only loyalty is to the crew who have placed their lives in his hands, Ejiofor as a NASA manager tasked with getting Watney home and Peňa as Watney’s closest friend on the crew. All of them do memorable work in parts that have in many cases much less screen time than they are used to.

But as I mentioned, this is Damon’s movie from start to finish and he responds by turning in maybe the best performance of his career. Certainly come Oscar nomination time he will have a very good shot at making the short list. He gives us exactly the heroic astronaut we’re looking for; one who is lonely and vulnerable but who faces his issues with intelligence and aplomb. He is a man who absolutely refuses to lie down and quit where many would have. Dying 145 million miles away from home is simply unacceptable.

The science in the film has been vetted by no less a personage than Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also recorded a trailer for the film) who proclaimed it accurate for the most part other than some minor details; for example, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena doesn’t work on manned missions, but the one element that doesn’t pass the science test is the storm that scrubs the mission; because the atmosphere on Mars holds 1% of the air pressure than the atmosphere on Earth, the dust storms there (and there are dust storms on Mars) are much less violent and only pick up the lightest of dust. Having a wind storm on Mars that has the capability of picking up debris and slamming it into the body of an unsuspecting atmosphere doesn’t work but of course it is necessary to the plot that the crew believe that one of their number is dead, otherwise they would never leave without him. Like our military, NASA leaves nobody behind.

But what we have here is a rare movie that promotes intelligence and individual scientific knowledge. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be put in a situation in which our science IQ is all that stands between us and oblivion, but it is a reminder of how important science is not just into making new cell phones for us to use but to our own survival as well. The kind of problem solving Watney exhibits is the kind of problem solving we need for our own future as our global climate changes, which may lead to famine and starvation. We’ll need a lot of Mark Watneys to get us out of that one. Nonetheless any movie that gives us this kind of portrayal of science and scientists and does it in a story that is this compelling gets the highest praise I can offer.

REASONS TO GO: Damon is brilliant. Gripping story with real life science. Maintains tension throughout. Realistic-looking Mars (other than the storms).
REASONS TO STAY: Not everyone likes science fiction..
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, images of injuries and brief male posterior nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ridley Scott delayed filming on his Prometheus sequel to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gravity
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Pan

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