Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Martian

Alternate Title:  Stand back!  I'm going to try Science!

One sentence synopsis:     An astrobiologist on one of the first manned missions to Mars is left behind during an evacuation and must figure out how to survive, contact NASA, and find a way home.

Things Havoc liked:  Welcome back, Sir Ridley Scott. I've really missed you.

I know we haven't had the easiest time, this last decade or so. I know I said some things that were unkind, maybe even unfair. I know your original vision for Robin Hood was a much more interesting film than the one Universal finally let you make, and I know it wasn't entirely your fault that it turned into a boring slog so dull that even the historian in me couldn't be bothered to take an interest. I know that you went into projects like Exodus: Gods and Kings and... *shudder*... Prometheus, with the best of intentions, and I tried, I really tried, Sir Ridley, to praise the good parts of those movies, the visual style that you've always been a master of, and the interesting concepts that you... attempted... to bring to the screen. I know that I wasn't very complementary about Prometheus in particular, Sir Ridley, but in my defense, you hurt me with that film, you hurt me and you hurt everyone that loved the Alien mythos you created. And I do love that mythos, Sir Ridley, just as I have loved so many of your films, from The Duelists to Blade Runner to Thelma & Louise to Gladiator, to the stunning, glorious, historical triumph that was your Director's Cut (not that mutilated theatrical version) of Kingdom of Heaven. I love so many of your films, Sir Ridley, and I want very much to carry on loving your films, and so when I heard that you were making a movie about hard science and space exploration, based on a book that my scientist friends all rave about, and featuring an army of great actors and a screenplay by Drew Goddard, who wrote World War Z and Cabin in the Woods and most of Netflix' Daredevil series, I got really excited. For all the things I've said, Sir Ridley, all I've ever wanted was for your movies to be great.

So welcome back, Sir Ridley, from the bottom of my heart, welcome back. Let's never fight again.

The Martian, one of the most anticipated films this year among my coterie of friends at least, is everything that Interstellar was not. Bold, scientific, rigorously on-task, and possessed of the best performance I have ever seen Matt Damon (among others) give. His task is to play Mark Watney, a scientist trapped on Mars when a dust storm forces the evacuation of the NASA expedition sent thereto. For what amounts to the entire film, he is on-screen alone, narrating his actions to a series of video journals and logs, as he struggles to find a way to survive in a habitat designed for temporary occupation, on a planet devoid of life, and with the nearest help several hundred million miles (and multiple years) away. This is not an easy task to perform, a role that demands he not only act alone but for some props, but that he narrate his actions to the audience without histrionics or character development, effectively expositing to the audience for two hours. Tom Hanks tried something similar in Cast Away, in which he was ultimately reduced to talking to a volleyball in order to give the audience something to watch and listen to, but Damon does it better, much better, mostly by understating the role, letting his scientific credentials take front and center and only letting slip the panic, fear, and turmoil that must be pulsing through him at every waking moment in tiny bursts and occasional slips of the stoic mask. It's probably Damon's finest performance to-date, and I've loved almost everything he's ever done, from Good Will Hunting to The Adjustment Bureau.

But the really impressive performance in the film isn't Damon's, it's Ridley Scott's, who has made so many bad or editorially-mangled films in the last few years that we forget just how great a filmmaker he is, one of the best directors working, a master of every aspect of filmcraft beyond the ken of most of his peers. Knowing, as Scott does, that a movie entirely set on Mars watching a smart guy act smart would become insufferably boring, Scott splits the film between Mars and Earth, where NASA, in the person of a whole boatload of fine actors from Chiwetel Ejiofor to Jeff Daniels, slowly become aware of what has actually happened on Mars, and throw themselves, collectively, into trying to help Watney out from several dozen million miles' remove. Granted, these sequences also mostly consist of exposition, but the exposition is tinged with debate, frustration, and risk, as NASA and even other international space agencies throw themselves into the task at hand with all the fervor of any good space-love-letter movie. Everywhere the film goes, from NASA command in Houston to JPL in Pasadena to the red planet itself, the cinematography is gorgeous, the soundtrack suitably weighty and epic (in most cases), and sense of wonder and exploration palpable. And unlike last year's dismal Interstellar, a movie which also featured Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on another planet, there is no attempt to ruin things with digressions into the physics of love or trans-dimensional Morse Code. Everything is grounded in real science, something my scientist friends can attest to even if I cannot, which lends the entire proceeding an air of wonder it might not otherwise have. It's one thing to see phasers and transporters and lightsabers and warp drives and understand what those vehicles mean for the plot. It's quite another entirely to see Watney lighting hydrogen on fire to produce moisture for his potato garden, or cutting a hole in his spacesuit with wire cutters so as to fly through space like Iron Man, if only because in the back of your mind, you're trying to remember that this shit actually works.

The visuals are gorgeous, as they always are in even a weak Ridley Scott film, from the sweeping, Dune-like landscapes of Mars (properly red this time) to NASA, JPL, and international space agencies on Earth, their look burnished just enough with near-future extrapolations to keep the film believable. None of the actors are asked to do much more than look properly somber and excited while reciting their lines, but they are good enough sports and the lines are interesting enough reads to permit this. Jeff Daniels more or less reprises his role from The Newsroom as the perennial straight-man head of NASA, Ejiofor reprises his from 2012, only with a good script this time, as the mission director in Houston, while more minor roles go to Kristine Wiig, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Benedict Wong as assorted media directors, mission planners, Astronauts, and JPL officials trying to figure out what to do to save Watney's life and get him home. There are no relationship triangles, no forced family drama, no stodgy, unbending administrator who gesticulates at the bottom line while sneering at the notion of trying anything "radical". Where disagreements happen, they happen among scientists and administrators dedicated to solving the problem in front of them. Given how many movies with strong premises I've seen destroyed by hack writers who felt that they had to add more made up "human interest" to avoid deviating from their "Screenwriting 101" syllabus, the effect is almost revolutionary.

Things Havoc disliked: I swear that I do not intend any puns when I say that the Martian is a very dry film, which is fine, and such humanizing touches that are there are clearly tertiary concerns on the part of the director. Recurring gags about the bad musical taste of the mission commander on Mars are fine, and we do need a break every once and a while from the raw "SCIENCE" of the film, but there are some decisions I don't quite understand. One of them involves Community's Donald Glover, who plays an astrodynamicist (this is a real thing) beamed straight in from the Big Bang Theory, the raw-talent-with-lots-of-smarts-but-no-social-sense archetype. This is just an archetype I don't care for, with exceptions, and Glover carries the thing way too far, as I refuse to believe that a titanic super-nerd such as him, however awkward, could walk into a room with the Director of NASA, and not only fail to recognize him, but apparently fail to recognize his title. The whole character screams comic relief, which is something the movie doesn't demand, at least not in strokes this broad.

A similar problem arises with... *sigh*... Jessica Chastain, an actress everyone else likes, and I just have no use for. Another veteran of Interstellar, Chastain is the only actor from that movie who manages a worse turn in this one, as she plays her character, the mission commander of the Mars landing, so woodenly as to render her entirely boring. I get that she's trying to be a tough, no-nonsense NASA commander, but the script calls for her to feel guilt at having left Watney behind to die, and to thereby project other emotions throughout the film. As with several other movies I've seen of hers, Chastain simply can't project the appropriate level of emotion for the scene. In Zero Dark Thirty she was a screaming lunatic who should have been thrown out the door of the high-pressure position she found herself in, while here she takes the opposite approach, reciting her lines monotonously and failing to elicit any sort of believable human reaction to the events before her. When Gillian Anderson's performances have more emotional heft to them, you may wish to re-think your approach.

Final thoughts:   The Martian is, in every way, a welcome return-to-form for Ridley Scott, a movie that is about precisely what it intends to be about, a love letter to NASA, science, engineering, and the power of human ingenuity to solve seemingly insoluble problems. It presents no villains except for Space itself, no drama except for that of the situation, and even manages to bypass the over-nationalism that sometimes accompanies NASA love letters by bringing other countries' space agencies (which ones may surprise you) into the mix to receive their share of the plaudits. The film it most closely resembles, inevitably, is Apollo 13, another procedural science-thriller about a disaster in space and the reactions to it by intelligent men, and like the Ron Howard film before it, it serves as a wonderful recruitment film for NASA and for engineering schools worldwide.

I know that my friends and readers of a scientific bent were anticipating the Martian, and I'm glad to report to them that Sir Ridley pulled it off. As for me, I've no more background in science than most laymen, can't tell a hydrogen block from a thrust pack, and don't particularly feel the need to learn to do so. If the film managed to make an effete, cinephilic liberal artist this happy, imagine what it might do for those of you for whom science is a passion or even a calling.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  Let's see if Robert de Niro phones it in this time...

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