Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Note: As this is a current release still in theaters, I am issuing a spoiler warning with this review as it deals with key plot points of the story.

I'm not normally a fan of science fiction, and tend to prefer those films in the genre that deal with larger existential questions about our place in the universe or the attraction of exploration and wondering "what's out there?", such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact, along with a few others. When I first learned the premise of The Martian -- based on a hit novel by Andy Weir, which I have not yet read -- about a botanist (played by Matt Damon) stranded on Mars and his ingenious efforts to survive until a rescue mission can arrive, I had hoped that the film would follow in the vein of the aforementioned films in tackling the larger existential themes with which the situation would seem to be ripe.

Because of that, I was mildly disappointed with The Martian upon initial viewing, but after giving it more thought, I realized that I was unfair in my reaction, which amounted to expecting the film to be something it is not. What it is is an solid adventure film, expertly directed with characteristic skill and polish by Ridley Scott, whose earlier Alien and Blade Runner remain two of the most highly influential entries in the genre of the past half century. Compared to those two films, The Martian is decidedly lighter fare. There's none of the dark, brooding tone of Blade Runner, or the horror elements of Alien. Indeed, there's little suspense at all for that matter, as there's never any real doubt that the astronaut will make it safely back to Earth.

A large part of the appeal seems to be the sheer likability of Damon's unflappable astronaut, whose reaction to realizing that he has been abandoned on Mars and left for dead by his crewmates is to make sarcastic comments into his computer's video diary log, more like a smarmy YouTube vlogger rather than a man who has just found himself utterly alone on a foreign planet. To be sure, the incessant dialogue lacks poetry and avoids dealing with the existential implications of the situation, but Damon is undeniably likable in the role, and portrays just the kind of hero the script calls for -- an everyman who also happens to possess nearly superhuman resourcefulness and intelligence.

Perhaps more frustrating are the long stretches of screen time spent back on Earth, where the team at NASA is running a race against the clock to bring the astronaut home before he runs out of food. These scenes are all perfectly well-handled, helped by such fine performers as Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiorfor and Kristen Wiig, but they can't help feeling a little dull compared to the scenes detailing Damon's ingenious methods of survival, which seem rushed and glossed over in comparison.

Similarly, the scenes on board the spaceship, with Damon's loyal crewmates deciding to take matters into their own hands to attempt a risky rescue procedure, are weakened by being a little too pat in their handling of the complexities between the characters' responsibilities to their families and their original mission, and their sense of duty toward a fellow astronaut. Rather than delving deeper into these conflicts, Scott pads the rescue scenes out with the expected eleventh-hour complications and repeated shots of large crowds across the world, gathered in recognizable locations and watching with bated breath as the rescue mission plays out live on TV.

But to harp on these weaknesses is to ignore where the film really succeeds, which is on the strength of its brash, rich images (especially stunning when seen in the 3-D presentation), its vivid evocation of Mars, and above all, in telling a splendid, escapist adventure story about an intrepid individual trapped in a most unusual situation, and the people dedicated to bringing him home safely.

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