The Martian (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Martian (2015)

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Mark Watney just wants a successful mission, but is marooned on Mars after a violent storm forces his crew mates to evacuate the surface.  As the world thought him dead, Mark cultivates a small ecosystem with what tools he had while reaching out through space for help.  But as Mark's small stash of recycled supplies dwindles the question becomes will the world have the time to save Mark, or will they abandon him?  Ridley Scott directs The Martian from a screenplay written by Drew Goddard and stars Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover.

The canyons aren't all I needAt some point in The Martian, probably during one of the many press conferences where NASA Director Sanders (Jeff Daniels) updates the world on the rescue mission, I felt a twinge of melancholy.  It was almost exactly two decades ago Ron Howard's Apollo 13 charted the on and off the ground panic which gripped the nation as we scrambled to find a way to get "our boys" home.  Apollo 13 was based on true events though, and a part of our shared national history.  Now, to get plausible-sounding space movies to the multiplex, we have to invent fiction as our desire to explore space has died.

I bring this up not as a negative against The Martian because Ridley Scott's direction keeps things as entertaining and taut as ever.  But it's through his entertainment I realized our progress has stagnated and there's little major public push to delve into the unknown.  Not that I blame people either, as The Martian goes to great lengths to show us the odds of surviving the slightest space disaster would require immense fortitude and intellect. I just wish we could get back the same zest for the unknown which fuels Scott's film, and hope it inspires other directors to do the same.

Other directors don't need to approach the hard science-fiction with the same almost hilarious attention to detail Scott does though.  Prometheus, his previous foray into science-fiction and one of my favorite films of 2012, had a small but vocal set of internet detractors which unfortunately comprised many articles wondering about "plot holes" and how bad scientists could end up in space like this.  The Martian reads almost as a meta-reply to those criticisms, as all great scientists seem to do is stand around looking worried while spouting off nearly endless exposition about what they need to do next.  Bad scientists make for flawed characters, good scientists apparently just wait for the next math problem.

Smart characters aren't dumb enough to get in dangerous predicaments as in previous Ridley Scott films, so get used to the sight of furrowed brows over computer monitors.

Smart characters aren't dumb enough to get in dangerous predicaments as in earlier Ridley Scott films, so get used to the sight of furrowed brows over computer monitors.

This could have been a disaster if it weren't for the vast array of resources available to Scott and the central performance by Matt Damon.  Damon does not have an enviable job for his role in The Martian, as his role is akin to a Youtube blogger whose subject is harvesting his feces to grow potatoes instead of internet memes.  But the cool shift in The Martian comes when Director Sanders realizes he's playing a high stakes game of public relations before mounting a successful mission to get Mark Watney (Damon) back home.  Prior to that point Scott's direction was about the stark contrast of colors, the cool blue NASA operation as opposed to the brash reds of Mark against the deep canyons of Mars.

But afterward the visuals take a turn for the tech-based, and not a well-functioning one.  Working with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, Scott morphs the battle of color schemes into a war of wills between the slick command back home and a man who survived despite all odds - or, another way, a glitch in the system.  Wolski and Scott play around with different degrees of harshness in lighting, stock, visual "errors" like tracking lines and lens flare in Mark's world.  This serves two function of reminding us in a subtle way how Mark's existence is an aberration in the face of the universe, and how the slick mechanisms of society will only correct the aberration if they can be convinced to do so.

All the while we have Damon's handsome face to ground the unstable alien experience.  Damon doesn't get the benefit of one huge jump forward to explain shifts in his personality, so has to modulate his performance to varying degrees of mania instead of being able to take a month or two off from shooting, "crazy up", then head back to the set.  He succeeds because of an amazing blend of God Complex (which, sadly, his recent Project Greenlight comments hint at as well) and laser-focused frustration at being mortal with limited capacity.  His work helps the heaps of exposition go down well while providing a great tracking chart for how desperately he's trying to keep his mental faculties stable.

That Mark is still alive is a miracle or a glitch in the system which Scott responds to with appropriate visuals.

That Mark is still alive is a miracle or a glitch in the system which Scott responds to with appropriate visuals.

Damon's performance would have sold me on the film, but a trio of ground-based performers helped The Martian along quite nicely.  Kristen Wiig, whose work I've tolerated in comedies and been ok with in dramas, finds the fine-line between total astonishment and despair as the kind of bureaucratic employee who's shocked to see anything getting done.  Like Damon, she works with material which could have been boring exposition and brings a lot of emotion into it.  Then there's Chiwetel Ejiofor, who brings remarkable complexity to his role in just a few lines.  One bit toward the end about how even in the face of science he looks to his father's Hindu and mother's Baptist faith is delivered with just the right amount of "I can't believe I'm saying this either" it almost brought me to tears.

The third is a performance from Donald Glover, who is in The Martian so quickly you'd almost be forgiven for missing him.  But between his nervous wreck role here and his angelic presence in Magic Mike XXL, he's showing to be a dynamite for the big screen.  We've seen the skittish geeky type in movies plenty of times, but Glover fills it with such uncontrollable cartoonish glee that spills out into little character moments, such as when he sips then promptly spits out old coffee into a cup which he proceeds to dump into a wire-frame garbage can.  In an already entertaining high-energy movie he was a standout.

So is The Martian the optimistic hard-science response to Prometheus?   Mostly yes, kind of no.  The Martian only seems optimistic on the surface when before you realize the entire mission depends on how the public is feeling that day.  Then the science almost feels like Scott going, "Well you want a movie with all the answers so you better be ready to take in all the answers."  This results in some bloat, but the results are still entertaining.  I'd take Prometheus Scott over The Martian Scott any day, but I'm glad they're both around.

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Tail - The MartianThe Martian (2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott.
Screenplay written by Drew Goddard.
Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover.

Posted by Andrew

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