The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Martian

I'm gonna tweak an intro I like to use from time-to-time. I've used it before talking the ocean and huge bodies of water but am twisting it up a bit to outer space concerning a film in theaters that's raking in the dough and piling up positive reviews. Rightfully so as well. So what's scarier than outer space? How about being trapped in outer space millions of miles and months and potentially years away from rescue? Yeah. Pretty...freaking...scary. So goes 2015's The Martian.

It's two-plus weeks into a NASA mission on Mars when a horrific storm forces the six-man crew to abort ahead of schedule and head back to Earth. In the evacuation though, one member of the crew, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by a piece of flying debris and swept away. The Ares crew leaves before they too are lost, suspecting that Mark was killed in the accident...but he wasn't. With the crew having left Mars behind, Mark wakes up the next day, wounded, running out of oxygen and very much on his own. All he has is a habitat that isn't intended for long-term living and with stockpiles of supplies but only to a point. If he intends to survive, he's got some serious work to do. A potential rescue is at least four years away -- it takes awhile to get to Mars -- and that's only if he can somehow get in touch with NASA. If he can. First things first, Mark has to provide for himself with the food and water (even rationed) scheduled to run out long before any potential rescue arrives. The clock is ticking...

'Martian' is based off a best-selling novel by Andy Weir. I read it this past spring and I loved it. LOVED it. Mark Watney quickly climbed onto my list of all-time favorite characters. At different points reading Weir's novel, I felt physical ill I was so nervous, my eyes teared up with extreme worry about Mark's fate and what I took away most, I laughed out loud over and over again. It's one of the best books I've read in years, funny, emotional, smart and dramatic, all rolled into one. So how about the movie...

It's a gem. Director Ridley Scott is at the helm of an excellent, almost great movie. I don't have any huge flaws to call into question, but I can't call 'Martian' an all-timer. It's just really, really good from beginning to end. Scott has had a string of so-so to meh to not very good movies, but this is the veteran director at the top of his game. It can be daunting adapting any novel, but the effort here is spot-on. Filming was done in Wadi Rum in the Jordanian desert, giving the film a startling, far-off look to the "location" shooting on "Mars." I really liked composer Harry Gregson-Williams' score, unassuming and quiet that more than suits the action. We don't need aggressive, in-your-face music telling you how to feel. You need quiet, companion music that underplays the emotions and action.

When I read Matt Damon had been cast as Mark Watney, I was skeptical -- a little -- because the character is in his late 20's and though it suited Damon regardless of age, something didn't seem spot-on about the choice. Well, I'll admit when I was wrong. Mr. Jason Bourne himself was a perfect choice. Part of the appeal of the Watney character is his response to his isolation and potential death. We see him break down in a couple instances, but this is a man who takes every problem as it comes and attacks it head-on. He never gets too down no matter how hopeless or impossible it seems. It's one of Damon's best performances, showing off what a versatile talent he is. You're rooting for him from the start and that never lets up. Intelligent, funny, stubbornly persistent and quite sure he's going to survive no matter what's thrown at him, an excellent part for Matt Damon.

Damon's Watney is -- not so surprisingly -- on his own during his time on Mars. In other words, it's kind of a one-man show during those scenes. Here, Scott uses some cool style points. In the book, it was quite acceptable that Watney kept a diary of all his day-to-day activities. Short of narration playing over his actions throughout the entire run-time, that wouldn't work here. Instead, Watney films video diaries, keeping us updated on one fiasco or success or observation after another. Damon injects the character with the same energy and dark sense of humor and stubborn hope that Weir's novel presented. It's a straigthforward call on style, but it works. The days pass with a simple 'Sol 18' and so on appearing on-screen, a sound effect like a radar ping playing over it. Not aggressive in the style department, but it works in subtle, underplayed fashion.

Now of course, 'Martian' isn't a one-man show. The overall cast is excellent, Damon on Mars and the expansive rescue effort playing out back on Earth with the Ares crew also traveling back to Earth. Lots of potentially excellent parts and they don't disappoint. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover lead the NASA rescue effort in a variety of roles. The "surviving" Ares crew includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie. If that's not a cast powerful enough to melt your face, well, I don't know what is. There isn't a weak link, but I especially thought Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, Wong, Chastain and Pena did especially good jobs bringing characters to life that could have been cardboard cutouts. What a cast!

It's hard not to watch Scott's 'Martian' and not think of countless other science fiction films. For every comparison you can make from similarly-themed movies like Gravity or Apollo 13, you get the sense that while familiar, Scott's film is carving out its own niche and heading out on its own. I thought Gravity was excellent as a visual medium -- a true experience of what being in space is like -- but I never felt emotionally connected with it. That isn't the case here. It's a spectacle movie, an astronaut wasting away on Mars while a rescue effort is mounted, but it connected far more with me emotionally. That's a credit to Weir's novel, the screenplay adaptation, Scott's directing and an amazingly talented cast. An all-around excellent film. And one more thought...

I liked -- maybe loved -- the humanity of 'Martian.' The trailer introduces the concept that often times when a man/woman, men/women are in trouble, people come to help, to rescue, to save. Racial and cultural differences are set aside, all in the hope of helping those that so desperately need it. It's a highly effective storytelling technique here as billions of dollars are spent to bring one man home. That's where this story is so effective emotionally. You're rooting for Mark, you like him, and you want him to survive. What drives him? He's stubborn and man, he does not want to die on Mars. Watney has some great narration late as a potential rescue effort draws nearer, a man doing a long list of firsts on a planet that is untouched by human hand (or feet). Very well-written, well-executed and well-delivered lines by Mr. Damon.

Reading Weir's novel, Mark Watney became one of my favorite literary characters, and Damon more than does him justice. A heck of a movie that succeeds on basically every level you could ask for. Highly recommended for a great sci-fi spectacle, a moving story with some very high highs and some very low lows with a ton of dark humor sprinkled in here and there. Go see it and read the book too!

The Martian (2015): *** 1/2 /****

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