Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Martian

Ridley Scott's The Martian is a film about rolling up one's sleeves and getting to work; it's set in a world where phrases like "Work the problem" are currency among the characters. The Martian might just be one of the best films ever made about the value of a good education, but in an odd way the script's insistence on order is also what prevents the film from being a classic work of science fiction. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist who's part of a NASA team on Mars; we eventually learn the mission is part of a larger series of Mars missions known as "Ares". A storm forces the astronauts to quickly evacuate, and during the confusion Mark is struck by debris and presumed dead. The story (Drew Goddard adapted a novel by Andy Weir) then splits into three parts: The very much alive Watney must use his scientific training to survive inside the NASA habitat on Mars, the other astronauts begin their journey home on the Hermes under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and the NASA director (Jeff Daniels) attempts to deal with the fallout from the apparent death of an astronaut.

Watney narrates his days on Mars into the log at the NASA habitat, and with the possible exception of Tom Hanks there isn't a better actor suited for the role of a galactic Crusoe than Matt Damon. Damon gives Watney a steadiness and good humor we all wish we could have in such a situation, and he's perfectly credible as a man smart enough to invent agriculture on another planet. Much time is spent on how Watney grows food and establishes communication with Earth, but Goddard's script forgets to tell us what if anything Watney has to go back on Earth. There are jabs of emotion when things go wrong, but Watney the man is never put in relief against the enormity of his situation. To put it another way: In The Martian Mars isn't another world, it's a problem to be solved. The crew of the Hermes (which also includes Michael Pena, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan) is so resolutely professional that the scene in which they consider whether to attempt to rescue Watney almost feels superfluous. Like everyone else in The Martian, these astronauts are team players who wouldn't think of not doing their jobs.

No one involved in The Martian meant for the audience to leave the theatre wondering about the purpose of the space program, but that's a question the scenes involving Jeff Daniels and the NASA employees on Earth bring up. Here the financial and technical effort required to save Watney is balanced against Congressional support for future missions. Leading the charge to save Watney are two scientists (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong) and a touchy-feely flight director (Sean Bean); their work is monitored by Daniels and a press agent (Kristen Wiig) who don't have much to do except say "Hold on a minute." It's a far cry from the scene in Apollo 13 when Ed Harris pours a box of stuff on a table and says "Figure this out." The idea of NASA as an institution to be protected as opposed to a knockabout group of test pilots and scientists is depressing, and it doesn't serve the film well at all. The closest we get to old-school NASA invention are Donald Glover and Mackenzie Davis (both believable as science geeks) as younger NASA employees. Glover has an especially good scene where he outlines a rescue plan, and The Martian could use more of his spirit.

Complaining about The Martian leaves a slight bad taste. The film is extremely well-cast, and Scott makes the empty terrain of Mars feel as alien as he can. There is a genuine appreciation for science and scientists and Matt Damon gives a fine, low-key performance that is without doubt the work of a movie star. Shouldn't we be happy with all of that? Maybe, but the schematic nature of the story becomes numbing after a time. More importantly, I missed those early NASA guys and their incredible desire for discovery.

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