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Josh Reviews The Martian

What a refreshing joy it is to get to see an intelligent, original science-fiction story that is also gorgeous to behold and ferociously entertaining. The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and written by Drew Goddard, adapting the book by Andy Weir, is a triumph, a gripping story about all that smart human beings can do when they put their minds to it.

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Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, one of the crew-members of a mission to Mars sometime in the near future.  An unexpectedly fierce storm forces the crew to abort the mission and evacuate the planet.  An accident during the evacuation separates Watney from his crew-mates, who believe him to have been killed.  But he survives, and awakens soon after to find himself stranded, the only human being on the planet.  The soonest a manned mission could return to rescue him is years away (assuming he could even find a way to let NASA know he’s alive, a seeming impossibility with his transmitter destroyed by the storm), and though the astronauts’ habitat on the Martian surface remains intact, it was only equipped for a planned thirty-day stay on the planet.

It is an extraordinary delight to watch a movie that champions science and intelligence.  The Martian is a movie about everything that human beings are capable of accomplishing, and it is glorious to behold.  This is an important movie in a culture that too often seems to look down on people of intelligence and learning.  The Martian makes the case for the value of brain-power.  Of exploration.  Of the way that knowledge and intelligence can, to quote Star Trek (another sci-fi story that values intelligence, science, and optimism) “turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Actually, watching The Martian, I was continually reminded of a wonderful quote by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  Speaking of the ethos behind Trek, Roddenberry explained that “ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids.  Human beings built them!  Because they’re clever and they work hard!”  Star Trek was a show that championed those values, that argued that mankind would find a way to put aside our differences, to work together to solve our problems and create a utopian — not dystopian — future society. That’s what I love about Star Trek, and that’s what I love about The Martian, a film that embodies exactly the same philosophy.

It all starts with the script, which is extraordinary.  I haven’t yet read the book by Andy Weir, but it’s clear that I need to do so immediately.  Drew Goddard (who wrote Cloverfield, directed and co-wrote The Cabin in the Woods, and was a key creative player in the early days of Netflix’s Daredevil series) has always impressed me, and his work here is impeccable. His script is sharp and efficient, cleverly and effectively telling a story that a) spans years, and b) involves a lot of very complicated science way over the heads of most movie-goers, myself definitely included.  Either challenge has undermined many a filmmaker.  Yet Mr. Goddard makes it all look easy.  The film knows just when to take the time to explore exactly how Watney accomplishes certain things, and also when it can jump over something with a montage or just a caption indicating that time has passed.  (I love the structure of the film’s constantly telling us what number day it was for Watney on Mars.)  The device of Watney narrating his time alone in mission logs works great, helping us to both understand the actions he takes and also to get inside his head.  The Martian might have been effective as a silent movie (in the fashion, of, say, the lost-at-sea survival story All is Lost), but I think it’s even more effective in its present form.  Watney’s narration is wonderfully written (and I am assuming the lion’s share of this credit must go to Mr. Weir’s original novel) and spectacularly performed by Matt Damon.  Much of the film’s humor — a critical component in keeping this serious film from becoming too dour or too dry like a science textbook from school — comes from these narrations.

Matt Damon is spectacular, turning in one of his finest performances.  Mr. Damon carries the film.  He has the difficult challenge of creating a character who, on the one hand, needs to be an “every-man” character with whom the audience can identify, and in whom we can invest.  And yet, he also has to bring humanity and vulnerability to a man who is not an every-man at all but rather the finest example of what humanity can be — smart and brave and loyal and incredibly resilient and persistent in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  Mr. Damon does all of that effortlessly, magnetically commanding the screen.  It’s a phenomenal performance.

I loved how much time the film spent, not just with Mark Watney alone on Mars, but also with the many men and women of NASA who — once they learned he was alive — worked tirelessly to help bring Watney home.  The film shows us the many heroes of NASA.  These aren’t astronauts or super-heroic daredevils.  They’re just very smart geeks — engineers and mathematicians and astronomers and more.  These sections of the film are every bit as compelling as watching Watney’s struggles alone on Mars.  Here again the smart script by Drew Goddard — combined by the performances of a phenomenal ensemble of actors — brings life to all of these men and women, many of whom are only on-screen for just a few short minutes.  The senior leadership of NASA is represented by Jeff Daniels, playing NASA Director Teddy Sanders; Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA’s Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor; Kristen Wiig as NASA’s Director of Media Relations Annie Montrose; and Sean Bean as Flight Director Mitch Henderson.  All four actors are phenomenal.  They are able to portray imperfect human beings who are nevertheless incredibly noble in their pursuit of the rescue of Watney and the future of manned space exploration.  (The two are not always the same, a point of conflict between these characters at one point in the film.)  We get to see many of the members of JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory tasked with figuring out many of the logistics of space-travel and actually engineering the equipment and vessels used on these missions.  Benedict Wong plays the Director of JPL Bruce Ng, while Donald Glover plays a lower-level astronomer/mathematician, Rich Purnell.  We also get to see a lower-level satellite operator for NASA, Mindy Park (played by Mackenzie Davis) and chief scientists at the Chinese National Space Agency (played by Eddy Ko and Chen Shu).  I love that the film explores players at different levels of the hierarchy of these space agencies.  Also hugely important to the story are Watney’s fellow astronauts on the Ares III mission to Mars, each of whom (even with very little screen-time) is developed as an interesting, fleshed-out character of his/her own.  Jessica Chastain plays the mission commander Melissa Lewis; Michael Pena (who has just been killing it recently on-screen — see also his role in Ant Man) plays the pilot Rick Martinez; Kate Mara plays Beth Johanssen; Sebastian Stan plays Chris Beck; and Aksel Hennie plays Alex Vogel.  It is a triumph of this film, based on the combined talents of Ridley Scott, Drew Goddard, the source material by Andy Weir, and the work of these talented actors, that each and every one of the characters I have just listed feels like a distinct character who I got to know and care about over the course of the film.  (Just as a small example, this film does a better job of selling the romance between Ares III astronauts Johanssen and Beck, using only a few tiny moments here and there, than many other films can do using their entire run-time.)

All of this is overseen by the great Ridley Scott, once again showing us what a master of film he can be.  It’s clear that Ridley Scott does his best work when working from a strong script.  Prometheus looked gorgeous but it’s script was a terrible, muddled mess.  I never saw Exodus: Gods and Kings, but from everything I’ve heard and read that film was a mess as well.  (I do hope to see it one of these days so that I can form my own opinion.)  But The Martian is an unqualified triumph.  In every frame of the film Mr. Scott demonstrates his mastery of the form.  He is able to present us with gorgeous visual effects (created by hundreds of hard-working artists and technicians) while also presenting those visual effects in a remarkably every-day sort of way.  The visual-effects of The Martian don’t draw attention to themselves.  Instead, both the terrain of Mars and the interiors and exteriors of a variety of NASA space-vessels and habitats are all presented in an every-day manner, which is perfect for the film because those environments — while outlandish to us — are the every-day realities of life for Watney and the Ares III astronauts.  Mr. Scott’s skill as a director also comes into full force with the way he dramatizes Watney’s months living in the NASA habitat left behind by the Ares crew.  One could imagine a movie in which the main character lives for a huge stretch of time in a single small space to be claustrophobic and visually dull, but Mr. Scott brings an incredible amount of creativity and visual poetry to his shots.  Mr. Scott’s skill pours off of every frame of this film. It’s wonderful to see Mr. Scott, at age 77, knock it out of the park like this.  (Between this film and George Miller’s Max Max: Fury Road, these senior citizens are showing us how it’s done!!)

A few other thoughts:

*  Seeing how great Kate Mara is in this film, without much screen-time, only emphasizes how disappointing Fox’s recent Fantastic Four reboot was.

*  Speaking of super-hero films, it’s pretty cool that Bucky hooked up with Sue Storm, no?

*  Fun seeing Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain (who were both in Interstellar, another recent piece of speculative fiction) reunited for this film.

*  Any film in which Sean Bean’s character doesn’t die is one worth of note, yes?

*  How gorgeous were the film’s many shots of the Martian landscape?  Incredible work by everyone involved in the film’s visual effects.

I could write for many more pages about The Martian, but I think I have said enough.  The film is a triumph, a thrilling science-fiction story with a strong basis in scientific fact and fleshed-out character work.  It’s able to be a compelling story and also a film that champions important values of science and intelligence.  I can’t wait to see it again.

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