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The Martian

The Martian

One man against an entire planet, and the planet loses

dir: Ridley Scott


You’d have to really, really like Matt Damon to want to spend about 2 ½ hours with him, just watching him do chores and talking to himself.

I mean, I like him well enough, but even for me it requires a level of commitment I’m not sure I possessed.

And then there’s the Ridley Scott factor. The last occasion where I spent time with him as he ‘transported’ me to another planet , I’d shelled out a small fortune to watch Prometheus in an absurdly gilded theatre in 3D (the ones where they serve you food and or drinks during the film if you so desire, and the seats are individual recliners). Let’s just say that my determination to watch Prometheus at all costs in a cinema did not lead to an outcome where I thought the money it cost was well spent.

No, in fact had I spent the same amount of money on a bunch of crack and handed it to the first person I saw outside the theatre, it would have led to the same profound feeling of foolishness and disappointment.

I can’t pretend I was at all tentative about seeing this, since whatever my misgivings could have been, the film has been a huge success and it’s garnered all the positive reviews that Prometheus never could. And it’s also another in the contemporary surge of science fiction flicks that aspire to telling an exciting story that doesn’t require alien monsters, invasions or any probing whatsoever. This started recently with Gravity, and here it’s reached its pinnacle, at least for the time being.

The essence of it is, the protagonists are in impossible situations but all the technology is fairly contemporary, so their solutions can’t come from magical saves or deus ex machinas: they have to use what’s already around in order to survive.

Gravity was a purer film, for me, and though they might have their similarities, they’re really telling the same story at different speeds / volumes. The Martian stretches out the tale of an astronaut’s survival on a timeframe that requires years, bloody YEARS, and that’s a whole different kettle of genetically engineered fish.

They all take their queues (the ones that at least to be contemporary and realistic) from Apollo 13 – which is a tribute not only to the brave men etc etc, but it’s also a testament to the ingenuity and brilliance of the people working at NASA. It’s one thing to have a disaster flick – it’s another entirely when you have a disaster-in-the-making flick where the solution is just to keep doing rigorously scientific things until you eventually solve the problem.

Screenwriters used to avoid that kind of thing, because maybe the thinking was that it would alienate dumb audiences made up of a lot of people whose hackles rise up whenever they hear the word ‘science’, who also coincidentally don’t get all this evolution business and climate change bullshit.

In short, they might be ignoramuses, but if you’re a film producer, you still want their money, so you need to gently coax that money out of them without making them feel as stupid as they should feel.

This flick, and the book it is based on by Andy Weir, make no bones about potentially alienating dumb audiences. They assume, quite rightly, that if they get us to care enough about the protagonist Mark Watney (Damon), and the rest of the crew who abandoned him like the cowards that they are, and if they explain stuff as if it’s being explained to a reasonably attentive person, they’ll get it and the film can keep careening along.

I am amazed at this film’s success. Perhaps I shouldn’t be. It’s all very well done, and everyone does a perfectly adequate job conveying whatever it is they need to convey. The set up mostly maintain believability throughout, putting Mark in situations we can understand and letting everything go wrong until he can ‘science the shit’ out of the problem in order to find a solution.

Stranded, as he is millions of miles away from Earth, there’s at least initially absolutely no-one else he can turn to in order to survive. It’s the absolute survivalist ultra nerd fantasy brought to life except on the Red Planet, rather than some horrible Earth desert or out on the ocean, with nothing to eat but a tiger, maybe.

This is a story predicated on the main character being the most possible stranded person in human history, and the extremity of the isolation perforce requires a bunch of highly novel solutions.

Mars is not the star of this movie. There isn’t much effort to make Mars look like the alien place that it must be. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it looks inviting, unless you really like sand and rocks, but it doesn’t really look that different from parts of the Australian desert.

It’s the profound lack of water, scarcity of food and complete lack of oxygen that makes it a lethal environment for Watney. Anything that goes wrong, and plenty of things go wrong, have catastrophic impacts. Though he is constantly almost cheerful and practical about his predicament, it’s staggeringly unlikely that he’s going to survive more than a few days, let alone many, many lonely months.

It’s interesting to contrast the two characters Damon plays in this film versus the jerk he plays in Interstellar. Both are stupendously far from home. Both have barely a remote chance of ever seeing a human being again. Yet one goes bonkers and will stop at nothing to get home, and the other doesn’t go bonkers, and tries everything rational in order to get home. Of course they’re completely different films with completely different points, but it’s an interesting spin on the same character, essentially.

Watney talks into a camera in order to record his thoughts and such, which means thankfully we’re spared a lot of voiceover, though, now that I think about it, it amounts to the same thing, except with images of the speaker’s mouth moving. His first seemingly insurmountable problem is the lack of food: there was a certain amount for him and the crew, certainly no where near enough for the 500 or so days he needs to survive in order to be rescued. Luckily, he’s a botanist, and knows how to grow things. How he goes about it… well, let’s just say he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.

He does have the advantage of there being a lot of material around, and a habitat within which he can while away his days, but considering the environment he’s in, the habitat starts to seem like the equivalent of a goldfish being transported around inside a plastic bag full of water. Sure he’s fine for now, but the slightest leak…

The other element I appreciated throughout is that the story requires Watney to depend also on the actual history of NASA’s previous (actual) missions to Mars in order to save himself and to eventually communicate with Earth again

Just so you’re not worried that it’s two plus hours of Matt Damon talking to himself and solving complex problems like they’re crossword puzzles, the supernerds of NASA back on Earth spend a lot of time gasbagging about how they’re not going to save Mark, how they are going to save him, what he should do to save himself (this is the element most similar to Apollo 13: where the planet-bound brains trust keep trying to come up with novel and adaptive solutions given Watney’s limited resources, and then have to convince him to do them.

As well as the people arguing on the ground, there’s also the remaining crew of the Mars mission Watney was part of before he was voted off of the spaceship. They initially have the incredibly difficult task of trying to survive the trip back to Earth, burdened by the guilt of having accidentally abandoned a crewmember by mistake. Upon this burden comes the even more difficult task of now being the only ones that could save Watney anyway.

Mostly the flick chugs along at a steady clip, and the time flew by, seriously, I was amazed at the running time and how not over it I was. Despite the happy-go-lucky manner in which everything transpires, and what I would call a uniquely American ‘optimism’ common to technocrats who love this idea that there’s no problem that can’t be solved with enough money, ingenuity, hard work, taking a risk, and being brilliant, I was absorbed by it all. The idea that enough math and enough experimentation can virtually solve even the most dire problems and situations is an immensely appealing one, but when it ultimately came down to it, it was the decisions of people, basic (but immensely brave and brilliant) humans who decide not to let one of their crew die alone despite the immensity of the odds against them all.

If I could levy any criticism at the story, well, I’d kinda have two, maybe. The one is that despite the film scrupulously trying to avoid plot holes or convenient conceits or deus ex machine solutions out of nowhere, the presence of a certain vehicle for a future mission was an awfully convenient plot convenience, have to say. I know without it the plot doesn’t work, but it seemed a little far fetched (not to spoil, but I’m referring to the rocket at the future Ares 4 landing site) for something that’s otherwise so rigorous. Still, that’s not the movie’s fault, since it’s from the book. And I wonder why, considering the problem that face.

The other issue is that while it has its fair share of drama, the protagonist is something of a functional robot. He’s constantly talking about what needs to be done, what he’s going to do and such, a sequence of constant A to B to Cs and so on, but the impact of what it’s been like to be stranded millions of miles away from Earth alone for years, for so goddamn long, never really comes across. Damon’s performance is fine, perfectly fine for the role, but I wonder if the character is meant to be some kind of unemotional Asperger’s spectrum chap.

He’s fine with the joke cracking parts, not so much with the unfathomable loneliness. I just wonder what it all is meant to mean beyond the indefatigable American certainty that there’s never a problem they can’t fix or a situation they can’t improve with their sticktoitiveness and can-do Boy Scout attitude.

The Martian is some kind of triumph, and it’s nice to see all of humanity joining together to barrack for the survival of one chap, it’s just staggering to consider the lengths they’ll go to in order to save one American.

8 reasons why of course he deserves it out of 10, since he’s MATT DAMON fer Christ’s sake.

“Mark Watney – Space Pirate!” – ye gods you’re such a nerd - The Martian