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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The Martian (2015)

Ridley Scott is awfully busy for a seventy-eight year old. For a while there, it seems like he was getting attached to a new project every week. Somewhere between flirting with the “Blade Runner” sequel and that movie about football concussions, Scott actually directed “The Martian.” The story behind the novel the film adapts is, itself, an inspiring tale, of a self-published book becoming a best seller. The film’s combination of humor and hard science made it a surprise blockbuster, dominating several weeks in a row last autumn. That same heat seemingly carried the film to the Academy Awards, where it snagged a Best Picture nomination. For those keeping track, that means 2016 is the year two sci-fi movies got nominated in the top category. These times, as the saying goes, are a-changing.

Anyway, “The Martian” is set in the near future and begins with a manned mission to Mars. After a surprise dust storm blows in, the crew is forced to abandon their post. In the storm, Mark Watney is injured, blown away, and assumed dead. Mark isn’t dead. Miraculously, he’s alive. Now stranded on Mars, Mark has to figure out how to survive long enough for NASA to save him. Conserving food rations, planting a potato garden, utilizing old and new technology in unintended ways, he does what he can to live on the desolate red planet. Meanwhile, those on Earth scrambled to assemble a rescue mission and bring Mark home.

Matt Damon is an actor I tend to be hot and cold on. He’s been in a number of things I like yet also suffers from bland leading man syndrome. “The Martian” is, at times, a one man show for Damon. Long sequences throughout the film are devoted to Damon going on his science adventures and talking directly to the camera. Any issues Damon may have an actor is pasted over with a sense of humor. “The Martian” is surprisingly funny at times. Damon’s voice over rambles off-topic in likable ways, such as when he accurately describes himself as a pirate. When dipping potatoes in Vicodin, complaining about his boss’ taste in music, or discussing his status as the only man on the planet, Damon gets big laughs. The humor grounds both the character and the story, staying tethered to Earth even while crossing the Martian surface. Damon proves a capable presence, easily carrying most of the movie all by himself.

If “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” didn’t already exist, “The Martian” could accurately be described as such. The film is a survival story set in a hostile environment. Using the limited resources at hand, Watney must find ways to thrive. By adhering to a hard scientific edge, “The Martian” actually makes itself more exciting. Mark can't dream up easy, bullshit solutions to his problem. What he does has to actually work. He has to create water out of nothing, plant a garden while using his own waste as fertilizer, and figure out how not to freeze to death on long trips. When trying to communicate with NASA, he has to dig up an old rover and figure out a way to talk to those back home. Watching the protagonist think his ways out these extreme problems is interesting, educational, and entertaining. Even in the final act, when close to being home, Mark is still flying by the seat of his pants, improvising solutions to life-threatening problems on a minute by minute basis.

“The Martian” wouldn’t be any less entertaining if it focused solely on Watney’s time on Mars. However, the film also follows the rescue mission back on Earth and in space. These scene are focused more on raw facts than Watney’s adventure, though no less science-packed. Keeping the audience invested in these moments is an equally stacked cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets maybe the most screen time as the man captaining the rescue mission. Ejiofor balances a professional edge with a wry humor, making his character come alive. Jeff Daniels also has a prominent part as the public face of NASA, balancing empathy and publicity. Sean Bean gets some good moments to himself, such as when he intervenes with the rescue mission. (There’s also a reference to “Lord of the Rings,” which is amusing.) Benedict Wong’s constant exasperation provides some chuckles. Of the supporting cast members, Donald Glover probably gets the flashiest part, as an eccentric and ingenious physicist. The supporting cast is loaded enough that notable actors like Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Kristen Wiig only have smaller roles.

While a film that emphasizes the “science” in “science fiction” may not seem like a commercial home run, “The Martian” is a real crowd pleaser in other ways. It’s funny, fast-paced, and has a rousing and well earned happy ending. A cast full of recognizable names doing good work probably didn’t hurt any. Ridley Scott has had plenty of ups-and-downs in his career but “The Martian” is easily his most entertaining film in quite some time. [8/10]

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