‘I’ ON CULTURE
I really liked Ridley Scott’s new move The Martian. I love science fiction, and far too often genre movies disappoint. I am tired of most superhero films; they are actually fantasy. But this new movie has a hero — a regular, although very bright man — at its center, and he humanizes the science and the story beautifully.
It takes place in the very near future when NASA sends a team to Mars. While there, the group on the planet faces an enormous storm. While running for the landing module to escape, one member gets hit by debris and is killed. The rest of the team takes off from the planet.
It turns out that the dead astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), actually survived, despite wounds, and is now alone on Mars. After a brief time when he realizes that he could die if the machine that scrubs and recirculates the air stops, or if the machine that produces water stops, he concludes that the lack of food certainly will kill him. Even if he could communicate with Earth, the next visit would not be for another four years, and he has food for perhaps a month or so. He is a botanist, and manages to solve his problem by growing potatoes. One of the fun things about the film is that he talks to himself and to a computer recording his thoughts so we can watch as he tries, and occasionally fails, at his experiments.
About a month into his work, NASA becomes aware that he is alive, which presents a host of problems. There seems no way that they can get back quickly. The top people there are led by NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), a real bureaucrat; Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), his top assistant; Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor); and publicity specialist Anne Montrose (Kirsten Wiig). They try to play politics while also trying to save their man. After some disasters, the Chinese offer assistance. (Incidentally, China has been a good guy in many recent movies since it is a fast-growing movie market.) Still, there are problems because a disaster on Mars has ruined the potato crop.
A possible solution arises, but it is very risky for the crew and would force them to spend several more years away from their families. The politics are fearsome, but the crew, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), all volunteer to go.
There is more fun as the astronaut uses a modified land rover to move across Mars to a pre-positioned return module followed by some harrowing space sequences. All in all, this movie is a great time.
Scott, a brilliant science fiction director (Alien, Blade Runner), has recently had a series of films that have not been up to his usual quality. This one brings him right back to the fore as a top director. Damon is great as Watney. He is bright and charming, often funny, but manages to keep things real. Wisely, he only does what normal, albeit very smart, humans can do rather than turn on some superpowers. Chastain is good as the commander, managing to be both strong and nurturing. The rest of the crew is also very good, each managing to show some individuality. The group on Earth also keeps things interesting. I particularly liked Ejiofor.
This is a good example of what some call “hard science fiction.” The focus is on the tools, the details all painting a canvas that seems completely real. In a time when we have special suits that fly (there is a great joke about Ironman near the end of the movie) or mutants with special skills, a movie featuring a real person is a great change.
I really liked this movie. It was quite possibly the best that I have seen all year, although it will probably be recognized only for its special effects. It has not only those, but a lot of heart, a lot more laughs than anyone should expect, and an ensemble of top actors backing up a bravura performance by Matt Damon. This is a movie you should see.