Loneliness can end in death
And one forlorn and final breath,
If a person in despair
Is not aware that others care.
A lonely man can yield to fears
That he’s alone among the spheres,
And many have assessed such thoughts,
From wealthy men to astronauts.
It’s true that lonely men can fret,
But loneliness can also set
A man’s commitment to restore
His life and courage from before.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (mainly for language)
I’m so very glad I finally saw this movie. Based on the same-titled book by Andy Weir, who published it serially on a blog before a big publishing deal arrived, The Martian is a combination of Cast Away and Apollo 13, borrowing and in some cases heightening their strengths.
When a storm hits NASA’s Mars base and the six astronauts are forced to evacuate, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind and forced to survive and wait for rescue. I was surprised that most of that synopsis happened in the first ten minutes, with the rest of the film dedicated to the survival. There was no real establishing of characters, least of all Mark, not even the cursory introduction of Gravity’s opening scene, before the action and disaster kicked in. Actually, the rest of the film isn’t much different in its absence of backstory, yet the central plot and struggle compensate for the fact that such potential shallowness would normally earn criticism. Weir in writing the story and Ridley Scott in directing it have fashioned a film full of characters, wordless activity, calculations, and halfway understandable science that is still somehow riveting, entertaining, and never boring. That’s no mean feat.
I don’t mind Matt Damon, but my VC actively dislikes him. In fact, the only role she’s liked of his (aside from Spirit since that was just his voice) was in Interstellar because he got blown out an air lock. Against all odds, she too enjoyed The Martian. She might have enjoyed it more with a different actor, but at least she was rooting for Damon not to get blown out an air lock. Damon’s performance isn’t quite on the level of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but he deftly carries his alone time on Mars with humor and resolve while occasionally letting his inner distress peek through. At least he didn’t have to deal with aliens, right? The rest of the ensemble trying to rescue Mark fill their roles well, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain standing out. Jeff Daniels as the Director of NASA comes off at first as a soulless administrator, but his steely commitment to making hard choices covers some genuine concern for his astronauts that isn’t obvious.
What makes The Martian special spans both the minute details and the big picture. Aside from the amazing special effects and expansive Martian vistas (and the characters floating through the rotating Hermes shuttle was pretty darn cool), there is much to enjoy. The ’70s disco soundtrack is supposed to get on Mark’s nerves, but it heightens the overall enjoyment for us, with self-referential choices like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” David Bowie’s “Starman” especially complements its montage and got stuck in my head afterward. Other little geeky moments include Sean Bean’s explanation of the Council of Elrond, as well as Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier) and Michael Peña (Ant-Man) as shipmates and cheering for “Iron Man.” I can’t wait to see if Bucky and Luis meet in the MCU. “Hey, weren’t you in The Martian?”
In addition to the little personal touches, the entire film serves as an encouraging repudiation of the famous declaration of logic from Spock (and Dickens): “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” While NASA’s director holds to that theory, far more people see Mark’s rescue as a duty to his individual value. Putting “no man left behind” over the more utilitarian view, many people sacrifice their time, their safety, and their personal interests to bring him home.
The Martian definitely vies with True Grit for my favorite of Matt Damon’s films, and it’s a shame it didn’t win any Oscars due to stiff competition. I suppose that’s why it was made into a “musical or comedy” to get some traction at the Golden Globes, but it’s much more dramatic than comedic. It’s a satisfying testament to the danger and unifying potential of space travel, the power of duct tape, and the worth of even one life.
Best line: (Mark Watney) “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet.”
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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