Film Score: Harry Gregson-Williams Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña
Apollo 13 meets Mission to Mars meets Cast Away. But that wouldn’t be telling the whole story. One of the most interesting things about The Martian is that it won the Golden Globe for best picture--in the category of Comedy or Musical. Certainly there is a lot of humor in Ridley Scott’s newest space film, but it seems a real stretch to call a story about an astronaut stranded on Mars a comedy. Nevertheless, that is what sets this film apart. It is a satisfying, big-budget science fiction adventure that combines familiar tropes from the movies listed above and, like a Lawrence Kasdan film, it brings a calculated eye to what sells at the box office and delivers right down the line on those expectations. Is it a great piece of art? Absolutely not. But it is a great movie. The screenplay was based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which began as an online web series and then self-published before being picked up by Crown. The screenplay was adapted by Drew Goddard, who is primarily a TV writer but has written apocalyptic films like World War Z and Cloverfield. Ridley Scott, of course, is no stranger to films set in space and used his considerable clout to assemble an all-star team of actors to assist him in mining box-office gold, making back six times its one million dollar budget.
The film begins on Mars, some twenty years in the future, with a manned mission going about their business of collecting samples and building structures on the surface, just one part of an extended mission program by NASA. Matt Damon is the botanist on the crew, and as he and first officer Michael Peña exchange an onslaught of friendly insults the captain, Jessica Chastain, finally orders their microphones turned off. But soon word of a violent storm comes from NASA and Chastain makes the decision to abort the mission after only a couple of weeks because the winds will topple their ship and leave them stranded if they stay. By the time they are prepared to leave the stand storm is already on them, and when Damon is hit by a piece of debris his suit is damaged and they are forced to leave him for dead. The rest of the crew barely lifts off in time, but they make it. Ironically, so does Damon. The antenna that punctured his suit and killed his communications signal was also surrounded by blood that inadvertently sealed the suit. He manages get back to the habitat, removes the antenna, and sews himself back up, but now he’s stranded. The conceit to keep him talking onscreen is a video log that he’s keeping for whoever finds his body on the next mission, which is still four years away. But as he sets about collecting all of the food they have brought, and improving his battery recharging capabilities, and fixing the rover for transportation, Mackenzie Davis sees the movements back on Earth and so they know he’s alive, but they have no way to communicate with him.
Back on earth the head of NASA, Jeff Daniels, doesn’t want to tell his crew who are now on their way back home. Sean Bean, the head of flight control disagrees, but it’s a moot point. It will take something on the order of two years before a supply rocket can make it all the way to Mars, and longer than that before the next manned ship can make it back there. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the NASA mission director who manages to communicate with Damon, once he figures out why the astronaut has gone after an old Mars probe from the twentieth century, and Donald Glover is the astro-physicist who figures out how to make the rescue much quicker. In many ways this is a star-studded feature that never really challenges the viewer’s emotions in the way that Gravity does, but then that’s not the point. The goal of the film was always box-office dollars rather than artistry, and in terms of entertainment it succeeds admirably. The humor that comes from the screenplay for Matt Damon’s character is wonderful. He is self-deprecating at times, angry at the situation at other times, an a hero throughout, using his physical skills and scientific knowledge to keep himself alive by coming up with a heat source and an artificial atmosphere that enables him to grow potatoes--with the help of human feces for fertilizer. And while there is suspense, there is never the gnawing sense of isolation that there is in Gravity, or even in Cast Away. Even the half-hour communication lag time is glossed over in most instances and is never really emphasized except in the climax.
One of the dubious aspects of the film that stands out--and to be fair to Scott it may be inherent in Weir’s original novel--is something I call anachronistic pandering. The references to the seventies which includes disco music, quite unbelievably the only music Damon can find on anyone’s personal computer, and episodes of Happy Days, all seem calculated to boost popularity among those who were alive them, as a way of increasing viewers in that older generation who might not go to the film otherwise. There are also references to other films, most noticeably Apollo 13 when Sean Bean sneaks up rescue plans to the crew and they write back to NASA calling Donald Glover “a steely-eyed missile man.” But ultimately the film belongs to Matt Damon. He carries the film in the same way as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away, but there was also an effort made to keep the story light, staying away from the morose introspection of something like Moon by emphasizing the humor and the survival spirit of Damon’s character. The film combines generally accurate science with a real sense of being on another planet, and a human story that is engaging without the need for an actual villain in the piece. And that is probably one of the most refreshing aspects of the film. With no supernatural or science-fictional enemies, nor the kind of infighting usually seen on space opera crews, the protagonist is left with only the elements to fight--something everyone can relate to and making the film a universal experience. In that sense, The Martian is simply delightful.