By: Kevin Jordan
Fictional humans on Mars is better than nothing.
A friend and I were chatting about space stuff, and one of the things we discussed was NASA’s current estimate of launching a manned mission to Mars by the mid-2030’s. She was crestfallen when I said “no chance” and explained to her why that’s a pipe dream. (We were supposed to have a replacement for the space shuttle by 2010 – which is now estimated for 2024 – and that was just for lifting astronauts to the International Space Station just 250 miles above the Earth, as opposed to the roughly 35 million miles to Mars. You do the math.) So, both of us will most likely be dead before that ever happens (and I’m still in my thirties). The closest she and I will get to seeing that achievement is by watching movies like The Martian.
There are many movies that are easy comparisons to The Martian. Gravity, Apollo 13, Red Planet – really, any space movie in which disaster strikes and the character(s) must survive an impossible situation. (Castaway is an appropriate comparison as well). The one thing that differentiates The Martian from those other films is that The Martian doesn’t take itself so seriously. That’s not a complaint about those other films, but it’s what makes The Martian feel like a breath of fresh air (and a sorely needed one in this genre). It’s nice sitting through a movie in which characters aren’t hyperventilating every other scene or playing tic-tac-toe to decide which button she should push because the writer or director was too lazy to make the character smarter than an airlock.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead and, also, he dies at the end. Or not. Gotcha.)
Matt Damon plays the title character, astronaut Mark Watney. He and his team are on the surface of Mars when a massive storm forces them to evacuate to the relative safety of space. While making their way toward their escape rocket, Mark is hit by a piece of debris that destroys his health monitor, renders him unconscious, and knocks him out of visual range of the rest of the crew. Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is forced to leave him for dead in order to save the rest of the crew and they all leave the planet. When Mark awakes, he is alone, but his suit is intact and their habitat survived the storm. Since you are an intelligent movie goer, you immediately begin to list problems because you understand that (a) the ship cannot turn around because they don’t have the supplies to do that and still make it back to Earth alive, (b) the shortest current travel time to Mars is eight months, so Mark must survive at least that long, and (c) how long can Mark survive in the habitat given there is most definitely not enough food and water to last even the minimum eight months? Those are all good points and I’m not going to address any of them because I think you should pay money to watch this film.
But I will tell you a little bit about the characters, which will give some hints as to what happens. For starters, Mark is a botanist and the previews show him growing stuff. Part of the fun of this movie is how he solves problems like that, so from now until you see this movie, see if you can figure out how he does that (and, no, there are no plants of any kind already growing in the habitat prior to the disaster). Going back to what I said earlier, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, so Mark is presented as a rational, level-headed, non-panicky guy trying to make the best out of the worst possible situation imaginable. Much of the movie is presented as him speaking to recording devices throughout the habitat and we see him making light of situations, thinking and talking out problems and solutions, and choosing the exact right moments to cuss. It’s the perfect way to present this movie because there is always tension in the background (you are always waiting for something to go wrong), but is overshadowed by Mark’s resiliency.
The crew is presented the same way, but the five of them are really the equivalent of one character. Captain Lewis is the brain, the serious leader who must make all the hard choices. Martinez (Michael Pena) is the mouth, providing the comic relief. Johanssen (Kate Mara) is the heart, balancing the voices of reason with the voices of emotion. Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Vogel (Aksel Hennie) are the limbs, providing feedback to the body, but mostly just doing what they are asked. While it seems like they should have a bigger role in the movie (considering their acting chops), they are minor supporting characters. And, of course they are, they’re on their way home – what can they do?
The major supporting characters are the folks at NASA who are trying to figure out how to keep Mark alive long enough to mount a rescue mission. The main players are Director Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and his direct reports – Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), supported by a mix of managers (Sean Bean, Benedict Wong) and techies (Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong). Like the Mars crew, the NASA crew Voltron themselves (yes, I just made a verb out of Voltron) into a single entity, each character providing a different trait. The difference is Sanders, Montrose, and Kapoor have the most screen time, aside from Matt Damon, so they are much more fleshed-out than the ship crew and provide more than a single trait. The biggest surprise for me was Wiig. I normally end up despising her characters, but her Montrose was a much more likable character and her delivery was far superior than past performances (especially when delivering humor). This time, I actually wanted her character to succeed rather than die in a spontaneous mission control accident.
Besides all of that, the most enjoyable thing about the movie is the realism. Unlike the pie-in-the-sky science of Red Planet or the idiocy of Gravity’s physics, everything that happened in The Martian seems like someone thought about it for more time than it takes to toast bread. From the food to the fuel to the travelling to the air to the rescue mission solutions to the matching relative velocities, it never felt like the movie was asking me to stretch the definition of “suspend your disbelief” to the point of making my brain cry. I’m sure there is some liberty taken with the science, but if the average layperson (me) didn’t spot it without Neil Tyson DeGrasse pointing it out, then the filmmakers did a good job.
Thinking about this movie afterward, it might just be the best film I’ve seen all year. At the very least, it’s the most complete. The story is simple, thoughtful, and doesn’t have any glaring, obvious plot holes (this isn’t a surprise considering it’s based on a novel of the same name by Andy Weir. But, nice adaptation by Drew Goddard). The visuals are wonderful and even the 3-D was better than usual, providing some amazing depth and color (though I did learn a tip for 3-D viewing, you must sit dead center on the screen – I know, duh, right?). Matt Damon nails his performance, as do the make-up and costume guys (I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned them before, but it had to be said here). But most importantly, it’s a movie you’ll want to watch many times over, because besides being a great movie, at this point, the zombie apocalypse is going to happen before we see an actual human on Mars.
Rating: You definitely underpaid for this movie. Even if you paid twice.