Friday, February 23, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Martian (2015)

And we're back with yet another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Set your time machine for 2015, because we're going all the way back to Ridley Scott's sci-fi drama-comedy(?), The Martian, starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and a host of other recognizable supporting actors.  Essentially a desert island movie set in space, The Martian tells a simple and familiar story but does so with great attention to detail, a lighthearted sense of humor, and some stunningly convincing special effects.  The film is set in the not-too-distant future where NASA has begun sending manned missions to Mars, and during one such mission a dust storm sends an AV unit crashing into one of the astronauts, presumably killing him.  His team evacuates the planet before the storm disables their ship, and heads back toward Earth.  But Mark Watney is still alive and now must figure out how to survive on a barren planet until the next Mars mission arrives in four years.  Through video diary entries and fun montages we watch Damon's character try to tame this hostile environment, supplementing the team's food stores with potatoes he grows inside the habitat, fertilized with the team's frozen excrement.  Back on Earth though, NASA uses satellite images to deduce Watney is still alive and scrambles to plan a rescue mission.
While the plotting here is all pretty standard fare (Cast Away meets Apollo 13), what makes it all work and feel fresh is the stellar ensemble cast and the procedural details.  Both Watney and the NASA scientists on Earth are forced to improvise repeatedly under the worst conditions, and watching them work things out is the real pleasure of this film.  Watney must create water by burning rocket fuel and letting the leftover hydrogen bond with the habitat's oxygen.  A third-act launch requires severely lightening the ship's load by removing all but one seat, all the doors, and the nose of the rocket.  The astronauts have to improvise a controlled explosion to slow down their orbiting vessel.  As with Apollo 13, the science is what makes this film so much fun.

Ridley and screenwriter Drew Goddard also keep things light by making Watney a good-natured, witty fellow we really like and want to see survive.  Where he could've resented his crew for abandoning him, he understands completely why they had to.  Casting the eminently likable Damon as the lead character provides a sort of shorthand, allowing the film to get right to the meat of the story without having to develop the character.  The movie doesn't have to get bogged down in melodrama.  Likewise the crew is fully committed to helping with the rescue effort even though it means extending their time in space much longer, and Chastain's natural tenderness makes her the perfect choice as the honorable Captain.  In fact this film oddly has no villain; even Jeff Daniels as the pragmatic Director of NASA is forced to balance NASA's public image with its ability to stay funded.  This is about as "feelgood" a hard sci-fi film as I can recall.

While it doesn't reach the lofty conceptual heights of an Interstellar or a 2001, The Martian nonetheless gives us a pretty realistic feel for the terrifying harshness of space, how uncooperative and unforgiving it is.  And even though the story beats are very familiar it still provides an entertainingly smart thrill ride.

I give The Martian ***1/2 out of ****.

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