Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Martian

After seeing Matt Damon in last year's incredibly underrated sci-fi epic, Interstellar, I kind of thought The Martian was going to be a weak retread. Of course, being based on a very popular novel released it from any similarity to Christopher Nolan's film, and after seeing this movie I can say that (despite a few casting similarities) they have very little to do with one another. I was able to pretty much put that preconception aside when going in to The Martian, though what I couldn't put aside was the explosion of hype that suddenly surrounded this film upon its release, with many calling it the best film of the year and even renowned news sources calling it a front-runner for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. When these claims start to come out, it immediately gives the viewer an expectation that may be hard to live up to.

The year is 2035, and a manned NASA mission is currently underway on the surface of Mars. However, when a massive storm hits that forces the crew to perform an emergency take-off, botanist Mark Watney is stranded on the red planet after colliding with a large piece of debris. Waking up some time later, Watney trudges back to base camp and treats his wounds. Even though he's stopped the bleeding and appears to be okay, he soon realizes that he's got a seemingly insurmountable obstacle ahead of him - learning to grow 4 years worth of food on a planet where nothing will grow. Luckily he's a botanist, and taking some of the solid waste of his crew-mates he's able to fertilize the soil enough to grow potatoes. Back on Earth, NASA realizes after analyzing the site of the mission via satellite that Watney must be alive, and orchestrates a mission to save the starving astronaut before it's too late.

First things first - this movie is very entertaining. Tasked with adapting a science-heavy book that remained compelling, screenwriter Drew Goddard was able to craft a script that toed the line of tech speak with natural dialogue and a laser focus on the most crucial elements of the story. But none of it would matter if the acting wasn't up to par. Thankfully, all of the performances are very good, particularly the NASA team working with Mark from afar. Of course, Matt Damon is incredibly likable and does a great job of portraying the cocky character of Mark Watney. I have a few problems with the character, but one of the things that prevents me from getting too involved in what he's doing is the fact that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels pretty much steal the show. Their interplay is expertly written, and the conflict between the director of NASA and the people who have to make his seemingly impossible demands come to fruition is probably the best stuff in the entire movie for me.

Unfortunately, this is where my problems with the movie start to come into play. I'm a big fan of Matt Damon, and cannot wait to see him return as Jason Bourne next year... but for some reason I was finding myself disengaged from his plight on Mars. After further reflection, I realized that the character is just too self-assured to make me feel like he was in any danger. The way Damon plays it, nothing seems like it's that big of a deal. Sure, I felt the gravity (no pun intended) of his situation when he first got back to base camp with a gaping wound in his stomach that he had to staple, and I was definitely concerned when (SPOILER ALERT) his crops were all frozen by a pressurization malfunction. But beyond that, he never sells me on the suspense of whether his character was going to survive. Plus, I never understood why we should care all that much if he didn't make it. Maybe that sounds a bit harsh, but he didn't seem to have any emotional attachment to anyone on Earth, and even his relationship with his fellow crew members was more implied than actually shown. Perhaps I've grown a bit cynical, but would it really be worth it to risk so many more lives just to save this one astronaut?

Anyway, for the most part I really did like this movie, and would have liked the humor even more were it not for a lady sitting next to us that uproariously guffawed every time something even remotely funny happened. The direction is very good, the acting is great, the cinematography is very pretty... but surprisingly, the visual effects are a little shotty at times. Some of the anti-gravity scenes in particular were a little goofy looking, and the final scene wasn't quite what I was hoping it to be.

At the end of the day, there's nothing about this movie that really sticks with me. It's fun to see Matt Damon cockily solve impossible scientific quandaries, and it's even better to see bureaucratic bickering within NASA as they try to decide how to proceed with this rescue mission, but beyond that I really didn't have much invested in this story. Everything pretty much goes according to plan, and I wasn't all that emotionally attached to any of the characters... even Mark Watney. Ultimately, this is a fun movie that you should definitely see. I enjoyed it quite a bit, even if I am continually baffled by the awards buzz it's still generating. There just wasn't a whole lot of depth to this movie, even if it was highly entertaining. As such, I'm giving The Martian a pretty solid three stars.

THE MARTIAN is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity