Filmsy Reviews: The Martian
The Martian (2015)
Director: Ridley Scott.
Starring: Matt Damon, plus an ensemble cast which includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels.
Quick Summary: An astronaut gets stranded on Mars. He must survive until they find a way to get him back to Earth.
Rating: A smart, funny, exciting, solid piece of sci-fi.
In a not too distant future, a Mars expedition runs into an unexpected wind storm and they are forced to abort the mission. Amidst the turmoil, astronaut and resident botanist Mark Watney gets hit by an instrument that pierces through his spacesuit, messing with his vital signs and knocking him unconscious. Thinking him dead, the rest of the crew sets course back to Earth, leaving him behind. Wounded, low on supplies, and alone on a barren, desolate planet, Watney must figure out a way to survive as long as it takes, until help arrives... if it comes at all.
Official movie trailer (moderate spoilers)
Based on the 2011 best-selling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is the latest film by Ridley Scott, starring mostly Matt Damon as the stranded astronaut trying to farm space potatoes or die trying. It's rounded out by an ensemble cast that deals with the aftermath of the accident and is trying to get the protagonist back from the red planet. The concept behind the novel and the movie has been described, both unimaginatively and accurately, as a mix between Apollo 13 and Cast Away, which makes me wonder if Tom Hanks was unavailable, or if it's just that we have an obsession with rescuing Matt Damon.
Damonsel in distress: so far we've rescued Matt Damon from nazis, space, space cancer, and now he's lost in space again?... Next time we'll have to save Matt Damon from Nazis IN SPACE!
I normally recommend against reading a book before seeing it adapted to the screen, because you create expectations that will never be fulfilled unless it so happens that you share the exact same vision as the filmmakers. Even then, if the movie is too similar to the book there's nothing worth looking forward to. Often, it happens that things that work on paper don't translate to the screen so well, or that some stuff needs to be cut because of pacing issues or length. Of course if a movie turns out to be too different from the source material, there are riots on the streets.
That being said, and having read the book beforehand, I gotta say that as far as adaptations go this one happened to be very faithful as well as entertaining. Kudos to Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods fame) who was in charge of the script and retained the basics of the novel, as well a lot of the humor, while also expanding some of the minor roles into more fleshed out characters. While the novel relies heavily on Watney's journey, and the rest of the story takes the back seat to focus on his efforts to stay alive, the movie shifts the balance to about half what happens on Mars, and the other half on Earth and on board the Hermes ship with the rest of the Ares III crew. Instead of having long scenes of Matt Damon typing log entries on a computer, he's recording video, usually narrating what is going on simultaneously. But other than pointing out that these changes greatly benefit the storytelling in this format, let's not forget that this is not a book review, and that people are not expected to have read the novel in order to enjoy the final product, so from now on I'll just proceed to judge the movie on its own merits.
One thing that was left on the cutting room floor I will greatly miss are Watney's interactions with a robot assistant only he can hear and see. That would've made for great comic relief.
What, you don't believe me? Go read the book and find out.
At this point you probably have figured out that I really liked this movie, but I still haven't told you why. For starters, it's great to see Ridley Scott at the top of his game, after a series of underwhelming performances. Clearly the veteran director's still got it, even though the last time he took us to space (on board the Prometheus) it was atrocious for everyone involved. The visuals are stunning, treating us to very realistic panoramas of the Martian landscape, on par with what we saw in Watchmen... and I'm talking about the scene where Dr. Manhattan goes all Princess Elsa "letting it go" and builds a clockwork castle, not about his giant blue dong.
According to Google, VDN 20,000 is worth around USD 0.90, so that means that a blue dong is a dime short of a dollar.
Speaking of giant dongs Mars, I am glad that after almost a century of making movies set on the red planet, finally one of them gets it right. With a few notable exceptions such as Mars Attacks (which doesn't even take place on Mars) and arguably Total Recall, usually movies about Mars are either mediocre or terrible. From the "Doom" movie, to "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians", it's all one bomb after another. To name a few from old days, there's "Lobster Men From Mars", "Robinson Crusoe in Mars" (which would actually have been a fitting title for this movie) and "Mars Needs Women". In recent years, there's been "Ghosts of Mars", "Red Planet", "Mission to Mars", and "Last Days on Mars". Even Steven Spielberg did a very irregular (though successful) take on "War of the Worlds" starring Tom Cruise, but I'm not sure if that counts as the aliens on that version might have come from a different planet. And of course, the huge flop that was "John Carter", which was a flawed film, but I didn't think it was that terrible.
Veronica, Princess of Mars would've been a better movie.
As far as acting goes, about half of the screen time is Damon all by himself, so the weight of the movie is on his shoulders. Good thing he is more than capable of carrying that burden, as he "acts the shit" out of this movie. Watney comes out not so much as the cynically optimistic smartass from the book, and more as a very relatable and charismatic everyman (who happens to have a fancy degree and go into space) stuck in a tough situation and dealing with it the best way he can, using not only his wit but also a very contagious sense of humor.
I know this is the first time I mention the rest of the cast, but they are all fantastic. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, Sean Bean, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong are all NASA/JPL workers, trying to figure out a way to keep the protagonist alive and bring him back to Earth. Each and every one of them does a pretty solid job with the parts they got, particularly Ejiofor, who has the largest role in the movie after Damon. Both Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig manage to give their characters more dimensions than they have in the book, where neither of them is very sympathetic. Special mention to Sean Bean, who manages not to suffer a bloody, gory, violent death for a change.
"0 deaths in this movie, baby!"
Then there is the rest of the Ares III expedition, who have to deal with the consequences of leaving their friend and partner behind. Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis has the largest role of the bunch, though not nearly as large as the trailers and posters for the movie make it seem. Still, she plays an important part, just as the rest of the crew, which includes Captain America's sidekick, Ant-Man's sidekick, and the Invisible Woman. All of them (Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie) bring a lot to the table, and they all are very accurate to their book counterparts, and... didn't I say I would stop comparing the book to the movie? I guess I lied. I will say we see more of the Ares crew in the film than in the novel, and that was definitely the correct decision. In fact, I wish we'd seen more of them as they are a fun bunch of characters.
Another thing that the movie got right was the music selection. I gotta say that I wasn't on board with the whole disco overload, which is sort of a recurring gag on the book. But whoever took that chance was inspired, because it actually works as the perfect background for Watney's tribulations, much in the same way that Guardians of the Galaxy did last year with old hits from the 70s and 80s. However, since this a film set in space, I also think that they wasted the perfect opportunity to make the entire soundtrack consist of David Bowie songs. While it's true they chose the best possible moment to play Starman, there were so many other choices such as Space Oddity, Moonage Daydream, Life on Mars, and the whole Ziggy Stardust album, which even makes allusions to frigging spiders from Mars!
David Bowie says: Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it's cold as hell
(It's not a very well known fact that David Bowie and Elton John are the same person).
Overall, the greatest achievement of The Martian is that it shows that not all conflicts require resorting to violence in order to be fixed, and that humanity is at its finest in times of need, when even enemies can put behind their differences to rally behind a cause that, while symbolic, represents hope for all of us as a species. It's also cool to see movies that paint a realistic picture of scientists being human as opposed to cartoonish stereotypes, and as cool as it is watching our favorite archeologist kicking ass with a whip, I think it's better when you show actual (mostly factual, if theoretical) science used to solve problems. The best part is that it manages to do all that while keeping audiences thrilled, amused and invested in the outcome, even if it might be sort of predictable.
Spoilers: Marvin blows up the Earth because it obstructs his view of Venus. Then J'onn J'onzz and John Carter team up to defeat the space Nazis by playing country songs from the speakers of a tripod. And I know that's hard to believe but it's true: all Apple triPods™ come with Beats by Dre, except the triPod Shuffle™.
I don't know if movies such as this one, as well as Gravity and Interstellar, and TV shows like Cosmos, will do anything to reignite an interest in space exploration, which in turn would inspire future generations to do greater things. People like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye seem to think so. We just found evidence of liquid water on Mars, so it is entirely possible that a mission not too different from the one portrayed on this movie might be looming on the (event) horizon. All I can say is that I hope this trend on the media continues, as it makes for high-quality entertainment.
What Else Should I Watch?
If you end up loving the Martian as I did, and I'm sure you will, be sure to check out the novel it was based on. I would also recommend checking out Gravity and Interstellar in case you've been stranded on Mars for the past couple of years and still haven't seen them. But if you're looking for recommendations that are not that obvious, here's a couple more:
Apollo 13 (1995)
Okay, this is an obvious one, but not everyone has seen it. Much like in The Martian, Apollo 13 is about a team of scientists working to save the lives of a group of astronauts when their plan to go to the moon goes wrong, with the added benefit that it was based on a true story. Bonus: you get to see Ed Harris rocking a pretty sweet vest.
Often overlooked, this is one of the best science fiction movies to come out in recent years. A man goes through an emotional tour de force while handling a one-person mining operation on a lunar base. This is the definitive Sam Rockwell performance, with Kevin Spacey doing the voice-over of a very HAL-9000-like OS that is his sole companion. Did I mention David Bowie's son made this movie? What further space cred do you need?
We all know 2001 is Kubrick's masterpiece, and everyone needs to see it. But Tarkovsky's own space opera (based on a story by Stanislaw Lem) is equally fascinating, dealing with more psychological aspects of the human mind while in the depth of space. And if your only reference is the 2002 American remake starring George Clooney, then I feel sorry for you.
Based on the only fiction novel ever written by Carl Sagan, this film touches many of the same themes as the other ones on this list, as it explores a world in which a highly intelligent alien species makes contact with Earth and how we deal with such a situation. It stars Jodie Foster, who went to space with Matt Damon in Elysium, and it also features Matthew McCounaghey, who went to space with Matt Damon in Interstellar.
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