Wednesday 28 October 2015

Movie Review: The Martian (2015)

A space survival and rescue drama, The Martian is an epic odyssey. The film celebrates science, resiliency and innovation under pressure, in a graceful, visually rich package.

In the relatively near future, the crew members of the Ares III mission, under the command of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), have established a temporary base on Mars and are conducting scientific experiments. An unexpectedly severe Martian storm descends on them suddenly, forcing a quick evacuation. In the darkened confusion, crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the mission botanist, is struck by debris, assumed dead, and left behind. But Mark is very much alive, just temporarily knocked out, his space suit damaged to falsely indicate no vital signs. He is completely alone on Mars.

Once Mark takes care of his puncture wound, he realizes that he will soon run out of food, and starts the process of planting his own nutrition. He puts his botanist skills to use, creates soil from packets of human waste, water by mixing hydrogen and oxygen, and is soon harvesting new potatoes. He eventually re-establishes contact with NASA back on Earth. NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has to explain to an astounded public why a man was abandoned on Mars. Sanders then gets to work with Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and a team of scientists and contractors to concoct an on-the-fly resupply plan until a manned rescue mission can be prepared. Meanwhile a debate rages as to whether Lewis, her pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), and the rest of the Ares III crew, still on the return flight to Earth, should be told that Mark is alive.

Director Ridley Scott again returns to space to create another cinematic classic. An adaptation of the Andy Weir book, The Martian is a grand, feel-good, gorgeously filmed space adventure, celebrating the human spirit and ingenuity in the face of adversity. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and the special effects team create an astoundingly beautiful yet desolate Mars, while Matt Damon and the rest of the cast bring to life unforgettable characters.

At over 140 minutes, this is an interplanetary story told with both breadth and depth. For the most part Scott takes his time to explain what Mark is up against on Mars and the science behind every step he takes to survive, while similarly tracking NASA's frantic efforts back on Earth to first get to grips with the situation and then devise an extraordinary rescue. Some plot points are glossed over, but overall, the film exudes the confidence of an adventure that soars in space but is grounded by reality.

The story of The Martian mixes familiar elements from other excellent films where individuals face great tests of survival. The abandonment theme in a strange environment with minimal resources carries echoes of Cast Away (2000), the lost-in-space premise was explored in Gravity (2013), the small group risking everything to save one of their own was the central premise of Saving Private Ryan (1998), and space mission innovation under pressure was highlighted to great effect in Apollo 13 (1995).

But The Martian creates its own identity thanks to a smart script by Drew Goddard, firmly grounded in science and steering well clear of any antagonists. There are no melodramatics in The Martian, no evil plots, conspiracies or even hostility on any planet surface. Mars just is what it is, Mark just is where he is, and the story of adaptation and rescue unfolds with simplicity and minimal fuss.

In 3D, the film is marvel to look at, with awe-inspiring red Marsscapes, Mark and his meagre equipment often a dot set against a vast, empty, quiet and beautiful expanse. But despite the majestic scenery, Scott keeps the focus firmly on the people, and The Martian is a straightforward narrative of one man, first innovating to fend off starvation, then innovating to survive long enough to give his rescuers a half chance. The deployment of science expands from Mark alone, to Mark assisted by NASA, and then unexpected allies are found in the unlikeliest of places, and the effort to save one man spans the multicultural globe. It is a hopeful, perhaps idealistic stance, but the film is unapologetic in presenting the best that humanity can offer, from individual strokes of genius to nations sweeping away mistrust and offering a helping hand - or rocket.

Matt Damon acts on his own for most of the film, and delivers one of his career-defining performances. Generally speaking to inanimate cameras, Damon is perfect in bringing to life Mark Watney, an enduring film hero facing unimaginable loneliness and the near certainty of death, but who simply refuses to yield to a seemingly insurmountable survival challenge.

The rest of the cast is sound, with Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña exploding to life in the final third as Mark's crewmates take it upon themselves to execute an audacious rescue mission. Kristen Wiig as a NASA communications advisor, Kate Mara as a member of Lewis' crew, Donald Glover as a scrappy astrodynamicist and Mackenzie Davis as a NASA satellite tracker get small but still prominent and sometimes crucial supporting roles.

The climax of the film is thrilling, but also pushes towards the edges of credibility, as the pace of on-the-fly problem solving accelerates to almost manic levels. But despite all the technology, elegant space crafts and silent planets, at the end it is the human connection that triumphs. The Martian finds deliverance with an elegantly clumsy dual pirouette and then a small bump in space, humans reconnecting, eliminating the distance between them, and embracing the closeness that makes us stronger together.

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