Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Martian (20th Century-Fox, TSG Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I finally got to watch The Martian, a major science-fiction from from 2015 starring Matt Damon as Mark Watney, crew member on the Ares III mission to Mars (and in this version of history the Mars missions are being run by NASA, not private companies as Eyton Kollin had advocated in the Mars panel at the ConDor science-fiction convention Charles and I have been attending this weekend) who gets left behind, sort of like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, when the other members of the crew evacuate themselves and their spaceship when a Martian storm is about to topple it over. The Martian began life as a serial novel by Andy Weir, published chapter by chapter on the Internet, and while the movie isn’t a serial the serial-style plot construction is very obvious. The whole thing intercuts between Mark surviving on Mars and making it through whatever plot complications Weir and the screenwriter, Drew Goddard, can pick up, and the folks back at NASA, headed by Teddy Sanders (a seedy-looking Jeff Daniels) and Vincent Kapoor (originally written as an East Indian but rewritten to be African-American after the Indian actor they originally wanted had a prior commitment in Bollywood, and played by Chiwetel Eijofor — who’s stuck in a suit and tie through the whole movie so we never get to see him shirtless, darnit), debating whether or not to try to rescue Mark, whether to tell the crew members who left him for dead on Mars that he’s still alive (they’re making the 20-month journey back to Earth), and how to rescue him if they decide they want to.

Ultimately after a series of complications — Watney, a botanist by trade, figures out a way to grow potatoes on Mars (leading to a lot of potatoes-on-Mars jokes I wasn’t getting until we saw this film), only another storm blows open his hydroponic dome and the Martian cold freezes his plants, so he can eat the potatoes he’s grown (with his own and the other astronauts’ shit as his fertilizer — this is shown in almost repulsive detail, complete with the earplugs Mark puts in his nostrils to control the odor) but can’t grow anymore; the unmanned probe they launch to get him more supplies blows up in space and they have to enlist the aid of the Chinese space program; his food runs out and his rations get ever smaller; and finally he has to launch himself into space and cut open his spacesuit to propel himself when the Ares III finally returns to Mars to pick him up — Watney is finally rescued and returned home. The Martian got rave reviews from both critics and fans, but I regard it as a very good movie but one that just misses greatness. The plot is well-constructed — in fact a bit too well-constructed — and in the end no one actually dies; it’s the sort of film Frank Capra might have made if he’d done a science-fiction movie (and Capra actually started on the film Marooned, only to get fired while the movie was still in pre-production; Marooned is still quite Capra-esque and there are strong parallels between it and The Martian even though the doomed astronauts in Marooned are only in Earth orbit, not on Mars). It kept my interest and I liked the film overall (and was gratified that in general the women gave stronger performances than the men — whether Hillary Clinton wins the presidency or not, movies like this indicate that Americans are willing to accept women as authority figures at least in fiction, if not in fact!), but there was a spark of greatness I missed.

Matt Damon is part of the problem; he’s superficially “right” for the part but he’s always struck me as someone, like Elizabeth Taylor and Julia Roberts, too much in love with his own good looks, too willing to turn to the camera, stare at it and ask it, “Here I am! Ain’t I beautiful?” (Paul Newman did that in some of his early films, but as he grew as an actor he got over it.) I remember when I watched The Brothers Grimm I noted from one of the “trivia” posters that Johnny Depp had originally been up for Damon’s role in that, and I said in my blog post I thought The Brothers Grimm would have been better with Depp in Damon’s part. So would The Martian, though the actor it really needed was Sean Penn about a decade ago; Damon simply doesn’t have enough of an “edge” as a performer to convince us that he’s a man on the thin edge of starvation and understandably upset that an organization with enough of a high-tech infrastructure to get him to Mars can’t figure out a way to get him back or even keep him alive while there. I quite liked The Martian; it was directed by Ridley Scott, who’s very good at this sort of sci-fi actioner (remember Alien? Blade Runner?), and he found a location in Jordan that’s an almost perfect stand-in for Mars, or at least the popular imagination of what Mars looks like. (An earlier Mars movie, 2000’s Red Planet, was filmed at the same location.) Ironically, the studio work, including all the interiors, was done in Hungary, at the studio Alexander Korda established there initially before he relocated to England, and one poster noted that the buildings that serve as the exteriors for the headquarters of NASA and its Chinese counterpart are only a few blocks away from each other in Budapest.

The Martian is a quality movie, it’s refreshingly serious (in fact a bit too serious; about the only comic relief is Watney’s disgust that the only music he has to listen to is 1970’s disco, courtesy of the captain of the Ares III, who brought no other recordings — and it’s a relief to us when David Bowie’s “Starman” is heard in one sequence and we actually get to hear a good song from the 1970’s! And it’s not a memorial to Bowie since he was still alive when this film was released to theatres) and obviously aimed at adults (indeed Watney’s succession of F-bombs itself becomes one of the film’s few jokes). It’s just one of those frustratingly good movies that could have been even better; as I said of Ship of Fools, it aspires to greatness and achieves goodness.