Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Martian: A Review


I haven't read Andy Weir's novel about a man stranded on Mars.  I admire the cleverness of the plot, but I cannot vouch for any liberties the film version of The Martian has/hasn't taken.  Be that as it may I cannot get behind the idea The Martian is a comedy (sorry, Golden Globes).  Yes, there were funny bits, but by and large its designation as being the same as Trainwreck is bizarre to say the least.  As a film, I found The Martian well-made, with a beautiful and thrilling ending. 

It just isn't as good a film as I was led to believe, or as it thinks it is. 

Man has begun his explorations of the Red Planet.  As the crew of the Ares III is getting ready to depart, a massive storm forces them to rush to the ship and flee.  In the chaos of the storm, one of their own, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) appears to have been crushed by debris and killed.  Reluctantly, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) agrees with her crew to not search for his body and go back to the mother ship, which will take them all home.  Back on Earth, NASA learns of Watney's death, the nation mourns, and they await the return of Hermes (the mother ship).

However, Watney has survived.  He makes it back to the base where he works to heal himself from his injuries and try to survive on Mars despite there being no food or water native to the planet.  His skills as a botanist will save him and keeps a video journal of his time.  On Earth, they discover that Watney is alive.  NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is more irritated than relieved that Watney lives, and he's rather not go and get him.  Sanders certainly does not want the Hermes crew, heading slowly back to Earth, to learn of Watney's survival.  Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), NASA's Mars Project Director, is adamant about doing what they can to bring him home.

With the rediscovered Mars Pathfinder, Watney is at long last able to make contact, and soon plans are made to rescue Watney.  Problem after problem arise: rushed launches without the whole safety tests end up in exploding rockets, they need help from the Chinese (who volunteer it despite having to reveal state secrets), and eventually when the Hermes crew discovers the truth, only one quirky scientist suggests using the Hermes to get Watney back.  Sanders will not hear of it, but the Hermes crew decides to essentially have a mutiny in space and disobey orders to follow the apparently nutty idea.  It leads to a long rescue that makes one wonder whether they will make it or not.

As I read my synopsis, something struck me as curious.  Again, not having read Weir's novel, I cannot say whether this is a new addition or not, but the portrayal of the Chinese as very noble and sacrificing leaves me wondering.  The fact that the Chinese market is the largest in terms of filmmaking, I'm sure, played little part in just how well the Chinese were portrayed (noble, philanthropic, technologically more adept than their American counterparts, willing to reveal state secrets to save one man).  That whole 'militarily aggressive, polluting, politically oppressive' deal I'm sure is just capitalist propaganda.  I don't know again, whether the Chinese in the novel were that good, but I couldn't help wonder whether the fact that the Chinese movie market is so big had anything to do with the extremely positive portrayal in The Martian.

Now, as for the film itself, I found The Martian to be very quiet.  This I know sounds like an odd criticism, but what I mean is that for the most part, there was no real life to the characters.  Everyone is either taking things too seriously or not seriously enough.   For example, Daniels struck me as one-note (gruff) but not once did I believe he was a real person.  Cardboard character would be the term.  Same goes for Kristen Wiig in a rare 'dramatic' turn.  It's as if director Ridley Scott told them that people don't smile, don't laugh, don't show any real emotions.

That can't be said for Damon, who for long stretches is the show.  I have to give him credit in that it takes a lot to keep a monologue going, but sometimes I wonder whether Watney's goofy persona conflicted with the seriousness of the situation (I guess this is where the 'comedy' comes in).  When he finally makes contact, he's asked to pose for a photo.  What he ends up doing is adopting a Fonzie-like pose, and I wonder whether a true professional would have done something so silly.  I suppose in our selfie-obsessed world it might happen, but since we're far into the future when The Martian is set, I wonder whether we've gone past that.

I also wonder why Chastain is so still too.  Here, she and her crew discover Watney is alive, and it registers like they've been told there'll be a slight delay in landing.  I'd be happy, but the crew on the whole seems...rather blasé about it.  On the whole, I found Scott's directing very dry...so still, so quiet, and sometimes pushing the 'comedy' bit.

About the one thing that drives Watney crazy is having Commander Lewis' disco music as his only soundtrack, and sometimes the film gets too cute with how it uses it.  When Watney is transporting some plutonium for his trip to a rendezvous point, do we really need to hear Hot Stuff?  I get the pun, I just don't find it funny.  When Watney is on the point of starvation due to his improvised farm having been destroyed (what I like to call Neil Armstrong's Revenge), hearing Don't Leave Me This Way is again trying too hard to be clever with the use of music.

It might also be a 'comedy' when you consider that Sean Bean, who plays another NASA scientist, is called to a secret meeting for a project quickly dubbed Project Elrond.  All that was needed was for him to say  "One does not simply..."

For some of The Martian, I was falling asleep, the combination of the uber-serious and the flippant not going well.  Then we get to the end, when Watney blasts off and the Hermes is going to attempt a rescue from space.  Those minutes as problems upon problems come in, the tension of whether Watney will make it (or whether any of them will make it), the sheer beauty of space and the tension of it all make it worth the price of admission to The Martian.  It is Gravity-like in terms of visuals and tension and certainly the highlight of the film. 

Minus that though, I think The Martian is a good film, but not the great film everyone appears to be making it out to be.  I found some of the performances pretty flat, Damon's character not that interesting enough to have the entire nation worry whether or not he makes it, and on the whole very still.  Again, it's not a terrible film.  I did like it in the end.  However, I think The Martian is a bit overhyped. 

Pity The Martian never had the chance to use this song, one of the Great Songs of the Twentieth Century...


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