Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 24 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 3; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Back in my youth when I was an avid science fiction fan, I must have read more than a hundred stories about Mars, but none ever included duct tape as a necessity for saving the day in in the planet’s hostile environment. This is just one of the many small details that add to the realism of Ridley Scott’s totally engrossing new film. Drew Goddard’s delightful script, based on a carefully researched novel by Andy Weir, is a far cry from Ray Bradbury’s poetic and speculative The Martian Chronicles or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ swashbuckling John Carter of Mars series. The phrase might not seem appropriate, but The Martian is more down to earth, never venturing into the question of whether or not there was ever intelligent life on the Red Planet. This tale of Ares Mission III is as much of a survival film as All Is Lost or Castaway.
A huge wind/sand storm catches most of the NASA astronauts outside their Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) where they are engaged in collecting soil samples. As they are rushing back to the ship the crew’s botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by the disk of their communications system. Assuming that he is dead, everyone else hastily clamors aboard so that they can take off before the listing vessel is blown over by the fierce winds. Very reluctantly Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), the commander, gives the order to blast off and head for their interplanetary vessel, Hermes, and then head for home. She is deeply remorseful at losing one of her crew members.
On Earth Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA ( Jeff Daniels), has to break the sad news that one of the more popular astronauts has been killed. Then comes the thrilling moment when engineer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers while comparing satellite photos of the site taken a minute apart that there is movement at the site. She talks with the director of Mars MissionsVincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and they confer with Sanders and NASA’s public relations director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig). Although Sanders jubilantly announces to the public that Watney is alive, he nixes the others’ desire to let the crew aboard the Hermes know because he thinks it might spoil their concentration on their complicated tasks.
We have seen on Mars Watney’s waking up and dealing with a piece of an antenna that has impaled him. (The extreme close up of his bloody wound and his extracting a tiny piece still lodged inside is not for the squeamish!) Once he patches himself up, he sets forth, like the good scientist that he is, to take stock of his supplies, and calculate how long they will last—at first this including oxygen and water. After a few sols (Martian days) he figures out how to create water and make it rain; to form arable soil using his own excretement; and how to grow a crop of potatoes by cutting up those they had brought along. (Was it for a Thanksgiving meal?) Also, with the ingenious use of the satellite connection, camera, and computer, he figures out how to communicate with NASA at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. One neat touch are his NASA colleagues who, watching him go about his tasks, who say that they think they know what he is about to do.
One need not understand all the science involved—I admit that I did not—to come to admire not only the Robinson Carusoe atsronaut’s ingenuity, but his pluck, his refusal to give up in the face of what seems like impossible odds. To help future astronauts, especially should he die, he records a daily video log—his narrative also helping us viewers to understand what he is doing as he goes about his tasks. He even tries out the rover to see if he could reach a distant point where the next Mars landing is scheduled. By digging up a shielded plutonium core that had been buried and attaching it and some solar panels, he is able to extend considerably the life of the rover’s batteries, and thus its range.
There are numerous setbacks for Watney, some that could be fatal, as when his airlock fails and he loses almost all of his crop of potatoes, and others are sources of humor. One of the latter is during his attempt to make water, he says, “If I want water, I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.” However, apparently using too much hydrogen, the mixture explodes, after which he says, “So… I blew myself up.”
The witty script includes even more humor in the following Watney observations: “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the greatest botanist on this planet;” “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” “Mars will come to fear my botany powers;” and, because he is sick of listening to the only kind of music that she uploaded to the Hermes’ system, “Tell Commander Lewis, disco sucks.” The one exception that pleases him is the rousing Gloria Gaynor song “I Will Survive,” which could serve as a most fitting anthem for the film.
At one point Watney keeps up his spirits by reminding himself that he has the smartest guys on the planet working to bring him back home safely. And watching the numerous characters produce their piece of the giant puzzle of getting him back to Earth is a major part of the inspiration of this feel good film. I love the way the Chinese are brought into the picture, and that their initial concern for secrecy gives way to the greater concern for the welfare of another human being. All of the people in this film are scientists first and patriots second. We see that due to NASA’s transparency the rescue attempt is being transmitted to crowds all around the world. At the climax we see them gathering around giants screens in London, Times Square, China, and elsewhere, all waching with breathless concern for the safety of one human being.
During the lengthy period things go wrong not only for Watney, but also for NASA when the rocket that is carrying relief supplies blows up a few seconds into the flight. There follows a complicated sequence that involves some disobeying of orders and even employing the crew of the Hermes in an elaborate scheme. From beginning to end this film never lets up in suspense.
Matt Damon well deserves all of the praise he has been receiving for his portrayal of the stranded astronaut. He exudes the calm confidence of the science nerd whose logic wards off panic and self pity. And yet when things go wrong, he, like any other human being, gives vent to his rage and frustration—at one point in unsuitable words that, he is reminded, are being broadcast around the world. His humor, as noted above, is almost as important a saving factor against loneliness and despair as his scientific training and competence.
In addition to Mr. Pitt we are also indebted to the large, gifted cast of supporting actors, each of them, like their character, contributing an important key to the project. We see that any journey into space is not a Han Solo project, but one requiring a talented team, even when things do not go according to plan. It is encouraging to see that the team also is an inter-racial and multicultyral one.
To go back to that mention of duct tape, this film brings up a myriad of little details that add so much to the realism of the film. First, the tape itself—how handy for Watney to seal up the cracks in the face glass of his helmet, and then later to seal the plastic canopy of the small craft that will lift him off the surface of Mars. (This was part of the requirement that he jettison the small craft’s heavy nose plate in order to lighten the load.) Note how often when we see Watney’s backgroud there are a couple of dust devils on the horison. Or when we learn the number of potatoes necessary to keep one man alive for the hundreds of days until a rescue mission can arrive? And I enjoyed the references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and to Marvel Comics’ Iron Man.
This is not a religious film, even though death is close at hand throughout. There is little of Watney’s inner life revealed, probably because as a man of science he has cast aside any measure of spirituality. Instead, the film is an exploration of and a tribute to the human spirit at its best. I will end with this insightful comment made by Watney because it shows that Scott’s film is the antithesis of the pack of dystrophic films that have flooded into our cinemaplexes the past few years. Every time in our communities when someone is in trouble we see his observation played out:
“Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.”*
*All quotations are from the “Quotations” of the IMDB’s page on the film.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. VP.