a.k.a. Get Your Ass From Mars
THE MARTIAN is what you get with old master Ridley Scott working from a good script (by Drew Goddard, director of THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) based on a book with a real solid, simple premise: an astronaut is left for dead on Mars and is intent on surviving. It’s like ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, but without a monkey! That’s the modern twist. No monkeys.
As you know, Matt Damon (HAPPY FEET TWO, HEREAFTER) plays the astronaut, Mark Watney. Just like my boy E.T., Watney is a botanist who’s just minding his own business being on a space mission collecting samples when something bad happens and the crew has to do an emergency take off, and then he doesn’t get on board fast enough. Unfortunately there’s no little Mars boy to hide him in the closet, feed him candy and dress him up as a ghost (or maybe those scenes were cut), but he does use existing equipment to jury-rig a means of communication to let the people back home know to come get him. And then he waits it out.
He has a limited supply of rations, and a long window before any theoretical rescue mission could possibly arrive. So, using seemingly pretty scientifically plausible methods, he figures out ways to use what he has to create more food, water, etc., and to deal with the other problems that arise, of which there are many. He’s in space, for crying out loud. Space is a motherfucker. He doesn’t even have to come across any Ghosts of Mars, there’s all kinds of other problems there. And we learn that a roll of tape is the most important tool anybody could have, followed by clear plastic/construction film.
Meanwhile there are people on earth: NASA director Jeff Daniels, PR lady Kristen Wiig, Mars Mission head Chiwetel Ejiofor (REDBELT), other NASA guy Sean Bean, put-upon engineering genius Benedict Wong (PROMETHEUS, SUNSHINE), etc. Once somebody figures out that Watney is still alive they debate about how he could possibly be rescued, whether or not it’s even worth trying, and also whether and when to tell the crew, who are still in space thinking their friend and colleague is dead. They don’t always make the right decisions at first, but they work at it.
There are numerous orders barked, scientists sweating over seemingly impossible edicts, ever-shrinking time windows, dangerous short cuts, lightning bolts of inspiration, and amazing feats of engineering and number crunching pulled off by the skin of some smart person’s teeth. It’s like APOLLO 13 in space! Or whatever. Alot of this movie is like that great part in APOLLO 13 where a bunch of dudes with glasses and ties are given a pile of crap and they have to MacGyver it into something a guy can use in space to save his ass. Or the guy in space has to figure it out himself.
Also you could say it’s DIE HARD on Mars, but with no bad guys. He’s a reluctant hero in the wrong place at the wrong time – the place happens to be Mars and the time is after everybody else left. Like John McClane, Mark Watney seems like an everyman even while accomplishing the extraordinary. A big part of the appeal of the movie is a smart ass sense of humor and a modern nerd vernacular. Watney explains his methods in goofy log videos where he makes grim jokes and uses language like concluding a monologue about the uphill battles he faces with “So… yeah. Yeah.”
We only hope we could have the same type of tenacity to survive if we were in that situation. (Which we wouldn’t. Let’s be honest, we wouldn’t be invited on a manned mission to Mars, you guys. No offense.)
In Seattle I probly run into more computer geniuses than science geniuses, but I think they share a similar humor, so I buy that Watney is a guy who makes jokes about Iron Man and pirates, and on earth they talk about Lord of the Rings. And if we ever saw them at home at least one of these characters would be wearing a t-shirt they bought on the internet that makes some joke combining Dr. Who with Back to the Future or some shit. Which is their right.
More humor comes from the way the Ares III crew communicate mainly through shit talk, even when they’re first reunited. Their bond is apparent while their words are all insults. If you saw the trailer you know the crew get involved again later on. Here they all discuss the danger and make the mutual decision to commit mutiny for an extremely risky rescue mission. I thought this was an interesting counterpoint to PROMETHEUS, where everybody but selfish Charlize agrees to give up their lives to kamikaze the ship into the prometheuses or whatever.
There’s also a running joke about Watney being stuck with only disco music to listen to, because that’s all the captain brought with her on the mission. I’m not sure why nobody else would have their own files, it’s not like they’re heavy. But it’s a great idea because, like the mix tape in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, it’s an excuse to put an unexpected soundtrack onto a space movie. I wish I hadn’t heard what song was gonna play on the end credits, because it’s all worth it for that punchline. But even better it’s a set up to knowingly use corny music and still be completely sincere about it. I don’t think there’s any winking when a montage of international cooperation plays out to the tune of “Love Train” by the O’Jays. THE MARTIAN is saying “fuck it, you can laugh at me but I really believe in people all over the world joining hands to form a love train.”
As with any movie like this there have been all kinds of articles that I have not read addressing how scientifically accurate or inaccurate it is. I’m guessing they said “more accurate than most,” but that’s none of my business. I do not have a scientific mind, so all I can offer is what I know from movies. And I can say that when he has to do painful surgery on himself to remove a piece of shrapnel in his abdomen, he pulls it out with tongs and then you bet your ass he looks around for a metal canister to drop it into. Clank. Thank the Lord they brought that with them on this mission otherwise what the fuck would he do, just put it on the table? No, he’d have to put it back in I think. I’m not sure.
On a technical level everything on screen is absolutely top shelf. The spaceships and space suits and space storms and what not look perfect. Like with PROMETHEUS Scott thought it would be cool to actually get off his fuckin ass and figure out how to use 3D cameras instead of pay computer guys to fake it all later after he’s done, so it looks really good in that respect. There are scenes on the Hermes space ship where the astronauts are floating around, and I assumed they had to be done APOLLO 13 style – filmed during short bursts of actual weightlessness – but I looked it up and they weren’t. So good job on that, whoever figured out how to make it look like badass Jessica Chastain (MAMA) was flying intently down a tube and pushing off of things and what not.
It’s hard not to compare THE MARTIAN to INTERSTELLAR. Both have Damon as a stranded astronaut, and both feature the great Chastain (I’m glad she gets to go into space in this one). Only one has robots, so points to INTERSTELLAR for that one. I’m surprised to be saying this, but of the two the more reality-based, less-poetic THE MARTIAN is more my speed. They both glorify science, engineering and specifically NASA. But INTERSTELLAR does it partly with some bullshit about “maybe love is science though also you guys, ever think about that?” I didn’t think THE MARTIAN took any big leaps like that.
They also approach the issue with very different attitudes. THE MARTIAN is much more optimistic. INTERSTELLAR shows us a world badly damaged by our failure to use science, THE MARTIAN just shows us a positive example. It’s optimistic. It believes that when somebody is in trouble the rest of humanity will try to help.
Except for Jeff Daniels. Fuck that guy.
To me this is mostly a movie about problem solving and teamwork. Watney puts his mind to solving problem after problem. The NASA people have to find ways to combine the right combination of ideas, even cooperating with the Chinese space agency. Different plans are presented and debated, sometimes combined. At the end it’s a nice lesson that obviously could be applied to any world problem, notably climate change. So in a way I think it’s about one of the same things that INTERSTELLAR was about, except it doesn’t have to come right out and say it.
Still, it’s kinda sad that we need a movie to tell us that we are smart and cooperate to solve world problems, so hopefully before too long the message of this one will seem kinda quaint. But even then it will be a fun movie to watch.
P.S. Eddy Ko, star of John Woo’s HEROES SHED NO TEARS, is in this movie. Now are you sold?
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.