The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

I do love edge-of-your-seat science fiction. Recent years have produced such films as “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” both of which I consider to be modern technical masterpieces. I also love it when a seemingly past their prime director like Ridley Scott can surprise us with something truly special. This is what he’s done with 2015’s “The Martian,” Scott’s best work since “Blade Runner.”

I sincerely hope that, by the time I’m at or around 50 years of age, we’ll have learned how to send manned missions to Mars. Going by the the timeline of “The Martian,” we will! It’s the year 2035, and the crew of the Ares III is 18 Martian solar days (sols) into their planned 31-sol mission. Plans change when a dust storm forces a more hasty exit. During the course of this storm, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and knocked well beyond anything resembling a line of sight. Unable to locate Watney, communicate with him or even establish that the man is still alive, his crew make the hard choice to leave without him.

All is not lost. It turns out that Watney survived the storm, and that the reason why his vital signs were undetectable was due to a jagged piece of antenna which had pierced clean through his biomonitor and caused a rather nasty gash that required medical attention.  As Watney begins to reason what needs to happen in order for him to survive, he calculates how long it will take before his food supply runs out. As luck would have it, Watney is a botanist and is thus able to create a makeshift farm using human excrement for soil, water derived from rocket fuel, and potatoes in storage for a Thanksgiving meal that’s decidedly no longer on the schedule.

Meanwhile, a dilemma of a different kind emerges once NASA, after reviewing satellite photos from Mars, comes to the realization that Watney still lives. Quickly, attention is drawn to the crew of the Ares III. To put it mildly, mission director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) feels that it would be irresponsible of them not to inform the crew, who are still en route back to Earth. Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the Director of NASA, overrules Henderson and prioritizes the completion of the mission. When it becomes necessary (not to mention possible) to explain all this to Watney, he’s not well pleased. A few f-bombs later, Watney insists that the crew be made aware that he’s alive. Sanders relents.

You know that, as soon as anyone dares to utter such fateful words as “assuming nothing goes wrong,” something inevitably WILL go wrong, and it does. First, Watney’s potato crop is destroyed in an accident. Next, the unmanned supply ship meant to restock Watney’s food rations explodes shortly after takeoff. Desperately running out of time and options, NASA secretly negotiates with the Chinese for use of one of their probes. A plan is devised which would involve the Ares III crew using the Chinese probe to instead resupply their ship so that they can have enough provisions when they slingshot around the Earth for a return trip to Mars to rescue Watney themselves. Sanders, a pragmatic man who is not keen on the idea of risking six lives to save one, rejects the plan. However, Henderson sends the plan to the crew anyway. They are unanimously for it, and get to work right away.

That things will turn out okay is no real spoiler and in fact should be expected. It would be cruel to string the audience along for not quite two and a half hours only to have the story end tragically. What’s important is whether the journey is entertaining. Boy, is it ever! The cast is (inter)stellar. Matt Damon is really good at playing stranded astronauts, having done so in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” …which also co-starred Jessica Chastain. Here, Chastain plays the Ares III mission commander Melissa Lewis, whose 1970’s music collection it is that makes up most of the film’s soundtrack as the only music on hand for Watney to listen to while on Mars. With a particular nod to disco, the songs are often relevant to the situation at hand.

“The Martian” is also a visual treat. The scenes on Mars are all completely believable. To the untrained eye, it looks as though Matt Damon has actually filmed his scenes on the fourth planet of the solar system. I enjoy these parts of the movie so much that I liken it to a good dream, one which cannot reasonably last as long as I want it to. As good as “Interstellar” and “Gravity” are, “The Martian” is that much greater  and really speaks well for the future of the science-fiction genre at-large. I can only hope, when we do finally send men to Mars, that it will be within my lifetime and that it will be an awe-inspiring, routine (i.e. incident-free) mission.

  1. Sylvia williams says:

    I totally concur with your excellent review. I especially liked your last paragraph comparing the scenes on Mars as similar to a good dream you don’t want to end.

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