Review: The Martian

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One could not possibly hope for a better promotion of a film than when reality unveils its own revelations. The news earlier this week of the evidence of water on the surface of Mars was indeed revelatory, and was quite possibly timed in conjunction with the release of The Martian, this year’s red planet hopping epic. One could also hardly blame NASA for being opportunistic. The government agency has been striving to expand our capabilities of exploring the universe, but has seen less and less capital devoted to its cause over the decades. The PR boost might very well work both ways, as the film could inspire renewed interest in space exploration for a new generation. Indeed, The Martian might be dependent on hard science to tell its story, but its charismatic lead and propulsive drive maintain its sense of purpose.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is not the Neil Armstrong of modern day astronauts, but he may yet exceed him. That kind of can-do persistence and maybe even cockiness is what will come to define Watney when he finds himself in an impossible situation. He is a member of the crew of the Ares 3, NASA’s latest expedition to Mars. When an unexpected storm hits their base, the crew is forced into an emergency evacuation and liftoff, but in the ensuing escape, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead. The crew has no other choice than to leave him behind or possibly face their own demise. It comes a major shock then, that Watney is miraculously still alive. Once he makes it back to base camp, he knows that there are not enough existing supplies to sustain him before he can be rescued. Thus begins the test of all of Watney’s scientific knowledge as NASA faces its own race to bring him home.

The process of Mark Watney keeping himself active and alive while NASA scrambles to plan a rescue mission is filled with endless exposition, all based on evidence found in scientific data and research. Relaying all of this could easily have been a burden that would slow down The Martian and possibly even alienate the audience, so the fact that it doesn’t is perhaps the film’s greatest attribute. The screenwriting is accessible largely because it allows the hard science dialogue to flow from Watney’s wisecracking mouth. There are few American actors who are as instantly affable as Matt Damon, and the film capitalizes on his likability to be an anchor for the audience. Watney is sarcastic, yet the furthest thing from a cynic. His optimism pervades throughout the entire film, and what could be a very dreary and dour story is surprisingly light on its feet. There are certainly moments of both intensity and deflation, but nothing ever quite dampens his spirits. The story back on Earth involves a vast ensemble of both NASA’s elite (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig) and the returning astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie), who are figuring out the best plan to send Mark supplies and eventually retrieve him. Many of the expected narrative complications crop up on both planets (mostly malfunctioning equipment), but the investment in the characters makes these roadblocks easy to forgive.

It’s a wonder that Ridley Scott is approaching his eighties, and he managed to pump out a science fiction epic of this scope and magnitude. Scott’s visual sensibilities haven’t dulled in the slightest, and director of photography Dariusz Wolski captures some eye catching imagery of the surface of Mars. Another big reason for why The Martian feels quite expedient in its pacing comes from its frequent use of montage. Whether Watney is harvesting crops, concocting water, fixing machinery or NASA is progressing on its rocket engine technology, there are montages throughout at least half of the film. Sure, it’s an easy device, and in a couple of cases becomes tiresome, but it’s a far better alternative to a tedious textbook explanation of what these scientists are doing. The CGI used in space scenes may not be as convincing as other recent cinematic ventures, but it feels fully integrated on Mars, an invisible contributor to visualizing the red planet. A phrase like “anything is possible” has been used so frequently that its familiarity may have dulled its intention. Even with some recognizable elements of its own, it takes a film like The Martian to fully latch on to that phrase and realize its full impact.

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~ by romancinema on October 3, 2015.

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