Sunday, October 11, 2015

"The Martian"

 4 / 5 

The Martian taps into a deep need to feel good about human achievement.  We live in mean, sarcastic, pessimistic times, but there's not a mean, sarcastic or pessimistic moment in the movie, which is bent on reminding us of the virtues of stick-to-it-iveness, perseverance and (scientific) creativity.

It wouldn't at all be surprising to hear astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, burst into song, like Yankee Doodle Dandy on Mars.  The movie pulls off this cheery optimism so well that there's really no point in finding fault.  The Martian works, and it works well, even though it lacks a little bit of passion and zest, and you have to wonder if, except for one moment when he bangs on the steering wheel of his high-tech rover, Watney ever feels downright angry about being the only guy on an entire planet.

Andy Weir's novel, on which it's based, is itself the sort of man-against-the-machine story that the movie tells; when no one wanted to publish his novel, Weir did it himself, to great success.  The movie had no such problems, and in some ways it feels a little too worked-on and too polished.  It could have used some of Weir's nerdish ambition and roughness.

Still, for all the seen-it-all grumbling that a middle-aged moviegoer can bring to it, The Martian works.  It puts a grin on your face and a tear in your eye, and that's due in no small part to Damon's darn-it-all pluckiness.  Sure, he drops the F-bomb a few times, but so did John Glenn in The Right Stuff.

Watney is one of six crew members on a mission to Mars that gets caught up in a big storm.  He's injured and, when his fellow explorers skedaddle out of the way (and off the planet), he's left behind and presumed dead.  Except he's not.

Occasionally, during the movie's 2½-hour running time, which never feels long or excessive, those other astronauts show up, and the story weaves in the saga of NASA and JPL scientists back on the Earth trying to figure out a way to rescue him.

Neither the movie nor the book ever questions whether Watney should be saved, whether that's the right use of resources and time -- though, in one of the few scenes that isn't driven by urgent action, Watney himself acknowledges that if he dies it's for a greater good.  Even though it's all told in voice-over, with Damon offering faraway, wistful looks through his space helmet, it's one of the best moments in the movie, one of the few times The Martian pauses to consider the (pardon the cinematic pun) gravity of the situation.

Largely, The Martian is a grand and elaborate procedural, depicting with some impressive believability how a guy could make it on his own some 34 million miles away.  On that point, the movie says Mars is 50 million miles away, the movie's tagline says it's 140 million miles away; I know it's all a matter of space and physics and things I don't even pretend to understand, but it's also a good example of the sort of stuff the movie doesn't take the time to explain.

Alone in his Martian hab, the novel's version of Watney had nothing but time to explain almost everything to readers of The Martian.  Want to know just how and why vacuum-packed poop can be mixed with Martian soil to grow potatoes?  How to make water when none exists?  How to properly wrap some plutonium to turn it into a heating source?  It's all there in the book, and then some.  You know exactly what he's doing and why, even if the math goes over your head.

I got a C in biology and a C-minus in chemistry, so I was mostly lost while reading the book -- but once I got the hang of it, I found Watney's ingenious solutions to be fascinating.  Weir may be a relatively simple writer, but he possesses a remarkable gift for filtering incredibly complex concepts down to a level that people like me can understand them.

Many of the same moments happen in the movie version, but they lack the explicit descriptions. The movie shows what Weir could only write about, and offers little if any explanation why or how things are being done.  That decision by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard keeps things moving, no doubt, but in trade we lose a little of the key moments that made Mark feel genuine: when his efforts failed, when even he didn't understand what he was trying to do, when he was trying to wrap his big brain around an impossible problem.

Those helpless but hopeful moves made the book work despite the scientific inaccessibility for many mainstream readers.  The big, exciting set pieces were less well realized in print.

On screen, The Martian combines the best of both worlds -- and may actually be enjoyed most fully by both seeing the movie and reading the book.

Nonethless, the movie does stand alone.  It is less a glorification of science and intelligence than it is a fantastic adventure movie, a grand and altogether fulfilling epic, and at its core is a smart, fully realized, downright Everyman-style hero in Mark Watney.  The final 20 minutes of the movie are particularly superb, when the crew that abandoned him returns and gets as close to him as they're ever going to get.  They're riveting.  They're completely believable.  And they get to the heart of what makes The Martian work so well: We've never seen this movie before.  It's really something new.

And that, more than anything else, makes The Martian succeed beyond its flaws.  It's helped further by a touching coda in which Watney tries to explain to some young kids what it means to be in crisis, how the point of it (and, hence, he seems to be saying, the point of life) is to just get through one problem at a time.  There are going to be others. Fix this one.  Then worry about the next.

The Martian gives us a story that feels new, combines it with a messages of hope and optimism, of determination and the refusal to accept failure.  So, while it might not be a perfect movie (when does Jessica Chastain have time to style her hair in space, is one of the distractions I had while watching it; did Kristin Wiig know she was getting six lines when she signed up for this?), it's a darn good movie. A fun movie.  A movie that reminds us that good people doing good things will make life good for everyone.

There's nothing at all wrong with that.  If we could find the same renewed sense of hope and ambition by flying ourselves 50 million miles -- or 34 or 140 or whatever -- to Mars, I'd be all for it.  The Martian left me feeling good, feeling that maybe if and when we get into another crisis, we'll know how to get out of it.  Or at least we'll figure out the way.  As long, that is, as there's a guy like Mark Watney around.

Mostly, The Martian made me think of that old tagline from That's Entertainment! in the 1970s: "Boy, do we need it now."  The Martian is, unexpectedly, exactly the movie we need now.

Viewed Oct. 11, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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