Movie review: Apollo 13 meets Cast Away in sci-fi master Ridley Scott’s The Martian

December 9, 2015

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from Indy Week

With its earnest discussions of orbital velocities and hexadecimal alphabets, director Ridley Scott’s The Martianis one nerdy-ass science fiction movie—in a good way. Matt Damon headlines as astronaut Mark Watney, a biologist on the Ares III manned mission to Mars.

In a recognizable near future, NASA is properly funded and technology is sufficiently advanced to enable giant interplanetary space ships to make regular trips to Mars. Things quickly go sideways, however, when a rogue dust storm hits the Ares III landing party on the surface of the planet. Watney is separated, presumed dead and left behind by the crew, which is forced to retreat to Earth.

Spoiler alert: Watney survives. Returning to the crew’s surface habitat, he runs the numbers and concludes that he will need to last for at least three years before his rescue will arrive. Most of the movie documents his ingenuity in gathering and creating the resources he needs. He figures out how to grow potatoes using Martian soil and nitrogen from the freeze-dried human waste in the habitat’s toilet system. There’s some bathroom-in-space humor that doesn’t really work. He also tries to burn hydrogen and oxygen to make water, resulting in a funny, live-action Wile E. Coyote sight gag.

The script, based on the book by Andy Weir, has so many interesting and inherently dramatic elements that you would have to work hard to screw it up. Of course, Scott is an old pro at science fiction movies, and his lucid visual style is a perfect match. He gives us sweeping vistas of the Martian landscape through a seamless stitching of digital effects and location shooting in Jordan. As you get swept up in the story, it’s easy to forget how amazing these visuals are. Scott has actually created a new world onscreen.

Meanwhile, on the Ares III, Watney’s crewmates—led by a mission controller played by Jessica Chastain—agonize over what to do. It’s the same back on Earth, where a NASA honcho (Jeff Daniels) consults with other officials, played by Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Donald Glover. J.R.R. Tolkien fans should watch for a couple of obscure nerd jokes at the big NASA council meeting, code-named Elrond.

The film has a few weak spots: Some dodgy cloak-and-dagger elements toward the end strain credulity, and there’s the glare of Hollywood polish in the climactic scenes and epilogue. Damon is solid in the lead, but he’s got some movie-history competition here. Comparisons to not one but two Tom Hanks movies,Apollo 13 and Cast Away, are unavoidable, and Damon can’t deliver the everyman authenticity that Hanks can apparently generate at will.

But overall, The Martian delivers what it should. A thinking person’s big-budget sci-fi movie, it’s talky and intelligent. The filmmakers worked with NASA to make the science as accurate as possible. Information is parsed out carefully, so we’re always aware of what Watney is trying to accomplish, even if we don’t quite understand the science involved. Attention is required and rewarded. The story is compelling, the visuals are spectacular and the movie even manages to make math exhilarating. How about that?

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