' Cinema Romantico: The Martian

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Martian

“The Martian” opens in the midst of a NASA mission on Mars that aborts and heads for home aboard their ship, the Ares III, when a storm hits, save for astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead. He is not, of course, and wakes up to find he’s been left behind, forced to square with a decided lack of food and the precariousness of the equipment necessary to keep him alive. His odds of surviving given the remote possibility of communicating with earth and the time it would take to mount a rescue mission are astronomical. It suggests a red planet “All Is Lost”, the 2013 film in which Robert Redford was stranded at sea. But that was a matter-of-fact survival movie giving way to a symbolism-infused parable, one man losing everything before he can spiritually begin anew, whereas “The Martian” remains strictly literal. In the aftermath of finding himself marooned, Mark sits in silence, the wind howling outside his window, weighing the options, as if reaching the decisive moment in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The next morning he declares aloud: “I’m not going to die here.” It’s just that simple; time to get to work.


Director Ridley Scott takes no steps to establish Mark as a character before he’s seemingly left for dead, and though that suggests a film where Mark spends this cornucopia of alone time to find himself, this is an external movie. Damon doesn’t play the part haunted or fatalistic but practically ebullient in the way he goes about crafting solutions, colonizing Mars, so to speak, by employing his botanist background to extravagant creative effect by harvesting potatoes. He’s not a pessimist or a philosopher; he’s a problem solver. What, you think NASA teaches these people to brood when faced with Mission: Impossible? The entire movie comes coated in that can-do spirit, underlined by the film’s preponderance of disco music on the soundtrack. Choosing “Rock the Boat” over “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is positively revelatory.

That can do spirit comes through just as loud and clear back on earth. Sure, the director of NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), upon learning of Mark’s improbable survival, must weigh cost and the probability of failure, but Daniels does a sly job evincing a man outwardly maintaining bureaucratic appearances while deep down inside scrounging for any possibility to bring home his missing man. And working with his mission directors, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), and a whole host of others, they are eventually able to forge rudimentary contact with their astronaut, formulating plans for a rescue, one that eventually involves Mark’s crew members aboard the Ares III going faux-rogue to lend a hand.

Drew Goddard’s screenplay, frankly, has no interest in legitimately posing the question Will He or Won't He Get Home? Although it tosses roadblocks into the narrative, those feel more like a matter of seeing how Mark and NASA will overcome them rather than if they will. And while this approach eliminates tension, it allows for a pervasive bounce in the film's step. This is an enjoyable jaunt, not a titanic struggle. At two hours and twenty-two minutes, “The Martian” never feels that along. If it’s Sci-Fi, it’s more like an old-fashioned Sci-Fi serial woven together into a single piece, one where an appreciation of ingenuity is more crucial than conflict.


The further “The Martian” goes, the more it opens up into a true ensemble, even if that ensemble is spread across billions and billions of miles, from the red dirt of Mars to the Johnson Space Center of Houston, Texas on Earth and to the Ares spaceship halfway between both. There is a moment when Daniels, Bean, Kristin Wiig (as NASA’s PR director) and Donald Glover (as an intelligent if social indelicate mathematician) share a scene, even though they are four actors you would never really expect to share a scene. And that abnormality only underscores the film’s intrinsic message of how everyone must come together in the face of a crisis to find a resolution. And if the all these characters, including Mark, are noticeably lacking in any kind of development or off screen life, that only enhances the message – they set themselves aside for the greater good.

“The Martian” could have been NASA agitprop, especially given a couple wholly unnecessary closing sequences, one of Mark speechifying to a room of new recruits and then a closing credits scene that feels like watching a post-Super Bowl celebration. Heck, some have gone so far as to seriously, or not-so-seriously, or both, suggest a conspiratorial tie-in between the film’s release and the real NASA’s announcement of water on Mars. Yet the film itself rarely offers pointed arguments on behalf of NASA. Its reasons for going to Mars in the first place deliberately remain vague; this is expressly a rescue mission. And as so many different entities (even China!) unite to rescue Mark, “The Martian’s” insistence that in the tortured, fractured climate of this country and the world around, we can, when called upon, stand together and get shit done doesn’t come across so alien. It comes across…inspiring.

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