Again with this, Matt?
Hollywood has spent too much money trying to bring Matt Damon home. I’m sorry, but someone had to say it. Our first venture to bring him home was in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Then, we brought him home from Syriana. His most recent attempt was in last year’s Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar. And now we have The Martian.
Don’t worry, it’s a good movie. The story is thorough, the visual effects are convincing, and Damon does a great job evoking tension and sympathy from his viewers. I swear to God though, if he gets himself trapped on another distant planet or war zone anytime soon, I’m leaving his ass behind and joining a traveling circus with Jimmy Kimmel.
Based on the novel of the same name, The Martian tells the story of the Ares III crew, an astronaut team sent to scout and research the planet Mars. While there, the team gets hit by an intense sand storm and is forced to initiate an emergency evacuation from the planet. While making their escape, however, one of their teammates, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by debris and separated from his team. Believing he was killed, his teammates board the ship and launch away from the planet.
The Ares III team forgot to account for one thing, however. Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon, so of course he’s going to survive. He didn’t last through war zones, conspiracy theories, and elaborate heists just to let one planet do him in.
Now alone on a planet that is incapable of sustaining life, Mark Watney needs to figure out how to survive and eventually escape from the planet Mars.
This film is directed by Ridley Scott. You can see that as either a good or bad thing depending on what part of his filmography you’re looking at. It’s true, he’s known for science-fiction classics including Alien and Blade Runner, as well as the Academy Award-winning Gladiator. But in recent years, he’s also been responsible for a number of duds. For example, has anyone seen, and liked, Robin Hood, The Counselor, and Exodus: Gods and Kings?
Well, don’t worry dear reader: Scott is back in his prime, and he orchestrates his environments beautifully here. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily just because of him. This world was crafted from the mind of author Andy Weir, who before writing The Martian was a software engineer for Sandia National Laboratories, AOL Inc. and Blizzard Entertainment. When he originally published The Martian on his website, he conducted extensive research on Mars’ geography, astrodynamics, and botany to make the book as scientifically accurate as possible.
By the time Ridley Scott and writer Drew Godard read the book, they didn’t have to adapt it so much as reproduce it.
The thing I love most about The Martian is the research that went into it. When it starts, you think this is going to be another survival story in space, not too dissimilar to Gravity or Apollo 13. The surprising thing, though, is that The Martian isn’t so much thrilling as it is fascinating.
Picture being stuck on a planet with no water, no oxygen, and no food. Seems hopeless, right? And indeed it is, but Watney was trained for environments like this. He adapts. He learns to deal with what he is given. So how does he react to having no water, oxygen, or food? He creates his own water by super-heating Mars’ humidity, he tears apart NASA machinery to stockpile on oxygen resources, and he learns to artificially grow his own potato garden by planting them in (don’t vomit) his own feces.
These are just a few of the problems Watney faces in the film. How does he create transportation? How is he going to communicate with NASA? What does he do if a sandstorm blows open a hole in his space station? What if his crops suddenly die out? What if he runs out of oxygen? What then?
This is how the film builds tension: by throwing impossible survival situations at our poor hero and watching as he dissects for a solution. Does his methods get outlandish? Of course they do, but they are reasonably outlandish, and that’s because of the reality Weir grounded Watney in while writing his novel.
Scott’s visual prowess lends well to the film’s scientific applications. In terms of scale, this film operates on a smaller budget than his other recent films (Robin Hood and Exodus: Gods and Kings’ budgets were $200 million and $145 million, respectively. The Martian’s was $108 million). Yet, in comparison, I’m inclined to say this is his most visually authentic film yet. The reason is because of Scott’s use of practical effects. For science-fiction films, it’s so easy to place your character in front of a blue screen and plaster generic Mars footage in the background. That wasn’t good enough for Scott. For the background alone, he went and filmed the production in the Wadi Rum Valley in Jordan, which has the appropriate sandy landscapes and shade of red that is accurate to the geography of Mars. He constructed 20 sets for the many areas Watney traverses. His production crew grew legitimate potato crops so they could capture the process of photosynthesis on film. For any other director, they would have settled for the easy way out, plastering CGI around your actor and having them react to what isn’t there. That wouldn’t do The Martian justice. Scott knew that and created the best visuals possible for a movie that deserved it.
I have one gripe with the film, and that is its climax, which ironically is supposed to be the high point of the film. I can’t say exactly what happens with the end, but I will say it went on for too long. By the time we arrive at the climax, we know what’s going to happen to Watney. What kind of a movie would this be if it ended any other way than what we were expecting? The thing is that Scott treats us as if we’re too oblivious to it, and he draws it out to a ridiculous length in an attempt to further thrill his audience. It doesn’t work. By the time the ending rolled around, I was looking at my watch, wondering how much longer this scene was going to drag out. Climaxes aren’t supposed to do that. They’re supposed to keep you further engaged with the film: not waiting, impatiently wondering when its going to end.
So does Mark Watney survive? You tell me. He is played by Matt Damon.