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REVIEW: THE MARTIAN Is An Upbeat, Hope-filled Survivalist Tale

Director Ridley Scott has returned once again to exploring familiar territory – space. In ALIEN, he showed us that no one could hear us scream there. In PROMETHEUS, he showed us the dangers of human hubris (and humans’ utter stupidity). Now in THE MARTIAN (written by another LOST alum, Drew Goddard), he strikes cinematic gold with a quasi-instruction manual on how to survive surefire death on Mars. Though this adaptation of Andy Weir’s beloved novel is the best thing Scott has given cinephiles in quite some time, it still goes where others have gone before – only this time, with a perky, life-affirming attitude.

The catchy concept is simple: While on a mission on Mars, a major storm hits the crew of the Ares III facility causing them to abort and head for their escape rocket. As Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), cyber-whiz Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), flight surgeon Beck (Sebastian Stan), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) and chemist Vogel (Aksel Hennie) head out into the vicious winds, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and disappears.  The others think he’s dead and leave without him. But guess what?! He’s alive! In order to survive, he must “science the shit” out of the remaining supplies in a lab that was created to last only 31 days. His wit, scientific know-how and vlogs are what sustain him until the people at NASA – including NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), mission director Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) – can figure out how to save him.

Scott manages to make Mars look beautiful, photographing it like the Grand Canyon. The scale and scope of its breathtaking vistas, which we get to see when Mark wanders the landscape looking for supplies, is entrancing. Goddard, working from Weir’s source material, does an excellent job both world- and character-building. The filmmakers do right by gender equality in supporting roles, casting them as smart, capable individuals – like NASA’s media relations advisor Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), JPL director Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and low-level night shift worker Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis). This is a much welcomed progressive step – a rarity. On her second feature set in space (INTERSTELLAR being the first), Chastain at least this time around gets to problem-solve from space rather than the ground. This is also Pena’s best film of the year because he’s not relegated to playing an exaggerated stereotype (suck it, ANT-MAN!).

Tonal shifts between humor, heart and suspense are handled reasonably well (albeit not perfectly). Palpably emotional moments are earned. The filmmakers mimic Watney’s ingenuity, cleverly dodging use of the f-word (except for one that’s perfectly placed). Plus, the precise way they work in disco songs off Lewis’ playlist – like ABBA’s “Waterloo,” Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn The Beat Around” – is ingenious, never precious. They hit at just the right moment in Watney’s journey, acting as a subtle mouthpiece for his feelings.

The unfortunate thing about THE MARTIAN is it stops just short of being electrifying. Things are explained to us three times – first in a science-heavy language, then in layman’s English and then finally it’s shown. Pick one! Otherwise, it’s a time suck. This is why the two hour and twenty-one minute run time, no matter how entertaining this tale is, feels about twenty minutes too long. Also, just when you think the film can’t get any nerdier, they toss in a LORD OF THE RINGS reference. You’ll get a good chuckle, but at a cost. The influences of APOLLO 13, GRAVITY and CAST AWAY are present, however, it doesn’t quite touch those aforementioned films. Goddard’s script doesn’t go there with Watney’s psychological state. Maybe hiding his sadness under a mountain of jokey witticisms is his coping mechanism. Missing is a distinct lack of GRAVITY’s isolation and desperation. Never crumbling into despair seems inhuman, but then again, Watney is the “Martian.” Altogether this winds up being something that engages the intellect, but only accesses the heart occasionally.

4 out of 5

THE MARTIAN opens on October 2.

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