Dir. Ridley Scott. U.S. 2015

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For all the excitement, awe, and energy that are worked up in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, the story might just as well have taken place in New York's Central Park with the hero stuck up in a tree. Instead of the sense of mystery and wonder (and terror) that could be expected from being stranded on a different world, what we have are buckets full of the down-to-earth (or up-to-Mars), nitty-gritty practicalities of science and a predictable plot that leaves no room for character development or introspection. In the story, written by Drew Goddard and based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, science is the redeemed and the redeemer, the hero and the heroine, the beginning and the end.

Shot in 3-D, the film’s fictional aspect is established almost immediately when we find out that NASA is actually engaged in space exploration rather than tallying up its budget deficit. Though we are not told the purpose of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, we know soon enough that the crew is forced to abandon their plans when they discover that a huge life-threatening sandstorm is fast approaching. Like Home Alone, the crew takes off for home but - wait a minute - they forgot Kevin. In this case, Kevin is fellow crew member Mark Watney, played with excruciating blandness by Matt Damon. Watney, presumed to be dead after the storm strikes, turns the tables on the departed crew and decides to stay alive, though according to his best judgment, his reprieve will only be temporary.

Watney must use his ingenuity and skills as a Botanist to solve his food problems to stay alive, but that is not his only concern. He has no way to communicate with Earth, knows that the next planned Mars mission will not be for four years, and that the landing spot on Mars is 3,200 kilometers away. As Watney explains in his video diaries, to survive he is going to have to “science the s..t out of this.” He first makes changes to the Rover, his only vehicle, to allow for longer trips and then sets about growing potatoes in an artificial environment. Whether he likes potatoes or not, they are now his only source of nourishment and means of survival. The subject of embarrassingly phony eulogies back on Earth, NASA is shocked when satellite photos of Mars reveal that Watney has defied the odds and is still alive.

The crew returning home on the Hermes spacecraft are not informed, however, to avoid distracting them from their flight - a decision made by NASA director Terry Sanders, played by a miscast Jeff Daniels. When Sanders, marketing chief Annie (Kristen Wiig) and NASA mission director Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find out that Mark is alive, they must find a way to “Bring Him Home” or else the film’s promotional department will get very upset. Eventually, Watney finds a way to talk to NASA by using communications devices from the Pathfinder probe, dormant since 1997, but the film provides little insight into Watney’s character and he seems to be emotionally unaffected by his plight, telling lame jokes as if he was planting potatoes in his back yard.

The more interesting story takes place at Houston's Johnson Space Center where plans are underway to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet, then return to the spacecraft carrying colleagues Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). After the launch ends up in disaster, help arrives via the Chinese space program and the Ares III crew itself must now make a crucial decision that has life or death consequences. The Martian has some fine technical achievements including breathtaking vistas of the Martian landscape by cinematographer Dariusz Wolsky and it is an entertaining film, yet all its achievements are subsumed in an atmosphere as exciting as a how-to-manual.

Disco music left behind by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) such as songs by David Bowie and Gloria Gaynor, attempt to enhance the film’s entertainment quotient and appeal to younger viewers but they only serve to distract viewers from whatever reality the story has. To its credit, The Martian has a humane message empowered by the enormity of the cooperation required to attempt to save the life of one man and it reminds us of the days when we all had a common purpose, yet the film lacks conviction and never moves past banal dialogue such as “YES”, “let’s do it,” and all the standard clichés of triumphalism. While Damon may have scienced the s..t out of his predicament, the film has also succeeded in sciencing the beauty out of it.


Howard Schumann

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