Friday, October 16, 2015

The Martian

Adapted by Drew Goddard, Andy Weir's novel about an astronaut left behind and stranded alone on Mars isn't exactly what I was expecting from a Ridley Scott film. With more heart and humor than Scott's usual fare, the film actually reminded me of a mashup of the space disaster from Ron Howard's Apollo 13 with the lone man survivor of Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away with a bit of MacGyver thrown in for good measure as our protagonist is constantly forced to think outside the box in order to survive a series of challenges that make his continued survival less and less likely.

When we meet botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) he is just one member of a crew of astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie), but things quickly change when a storm causes the group to leave the planet prematurely. Mistakenly leaving Watney behind, the crew begin their slow trek back to Earth. With the limited resources and safety of the outpost (neither of which were meant to be stretched for extended uses), Watney has to find a way not only to alert NASA that he's still alive but find away to live on a desolate world until help can reach him.

With a strong supporting cast, both in space and on Earth, Damon leads an emotional and gripping tale that's also arguably more entertaining and fun than any popcorn movie from this summer. Although it's completely Damon's film, the movie is peppered with familiar faces such as Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, and Mackenzie Davis as those determined to help the stranded astronaut survive and return home. With such a large supporting cast not everyone gets their own moment to shine but at the same time it never appears Scott is wasting anyone on-screen.

We may not get as many scenes from the NASA point of view as occur in Apollo 13, but what we are given certainly hearkens back to Ron Howard's film (in a good way). While others struggle with how to help the astronaut, the film's most memorable moments take place on Mars as Watney struggles to survive even after setbacks continue to decrease his chances from ever looking upon another living soul ever again. Structured in a way that allows us to live through both his successes and failures the audience struggles along with our protagonist rooting him on until hope may eventually arrive. Built around a likable star and character everyone, including the audience, is rooting to survive it's impossible not to get drawn into the moment and feel disappointment with every setback and joy with every small success.

The film isn't as enveloping or visually astonishing as Gravity, but it does mesh good practical and CGI effects to a (at least a movie version) of practical science suggesting how a botanist with Watney's skill-set might survive on Mars for years. The Martian is more smart popcorn flick than character study but it does comfortably straddle both genres while using aspects of disaster porn to further the tension of the tale and provide a must-see movie experience.

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