October 02, 2015

The Martian

AAA is soooo slow

Grade: A
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel, Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Mackenzie Davis
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 21 min.

Combining heart and mind, The Martian is an ultra-modern technical achievement wrangled into a throwback cinematic experience. There’s the grand backdrop of space operas like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff, but in service to jarringly accessible narrative and characters. It’s Matt Damon’s best film in at least five years, maybe more. It’s director Ridley Scott’s best film in 15 years, maybe 33.

During the scurry to abort a manned mission to Mars in the midst of a fierce storm, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is clobbered by flying debris and disappears in the abyss. Presuming Watney dead, his commander (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the Ares 3 crewmates leave him behind and embark on the long voyage home. When Watney awakes, begins the arduous task to contact Earth while subsisting on the hostile red planet.

Watney, a botanist with an exponential (and perhaps unrealistic) level of technical acumen, fashions part of his climate-controlled dwelling pod into a greenhouse, creating water through alchemy and growing potatoes in a compost of Martian dirt and discarded feces. It goes swimmingly for a while, but the technological safety blanket is always bound to go awry, suddenly and spectacularly.

The film has three fronts. Watney’s Martian homestead, the Hermes spaceship carrying his crew back to Earth (its exquisite, zero-G interiors evocative of Kubrick) and NASA’s best and brightest furiously conceiving ways to rescue Watney and keep him alive in the meantime. There are no silly stereotypes, no ill-conceived character conflicts. Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels) is the starched-shirt head of NASA who funnels success through bureaucratic constraints. Vincent Capoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor, so good), head of the Mars Mission project, breathes a bit more fiery idealism. Kristen Wiig provides just the right amount of comic relief as a PR flack

The most daunting obstacle in The Martian isn’t the inhospitable Martian landscape, but the clock counting up the number of days Watney remains marooned, and for the Hermes to reach Earth, and for NASA to merely ready a resupply rocket. This isn’t some garish Michael Bay action flick hardwired into our era of instant gratification. Scott’s 141-minute running time allows the storyline to unspool logically, furthering the tedium of time, space and progress.

As the plot crystallizes into an amalgam of Cast Away and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the disco music accompanying Watney’s isolation is more than a kitschy device. It’s the soundtrack of an era replete with ingenuity and can-do human spirit. The Martian doesn’t shove these ideals—or its emotions—in your face, but rather permits them to permeate your synapses. It’s a celebration of science and intelligent problem-solving. And it’s also an epic whose climax combines the visual grandeur of Gravity with the thrills of an Avengers movie.

The Martian is a paean to humankind’s capacity for advancement, exploration and, yes, moviemaking.