—Well, OK, I Guess Just Mars Will Do (song lyric from “Fly Me to the Moon”
[Bart Howard, 1954] here’s Frank Sinatra's version from 1969 if you’d like to take a listen)
Review by Ken Burke
After serving up a full banquet of 4 reviews in my last posting (beginning, appropriately with East Side Sushi [Anthony Lucero]), I’m going with just a somewhat-smaller-single-serving this time as I haven’t seen much in the theaters lately, partly because my wonderful wife Nina’s been sick with some serious food poisoning that she picked up somewhere (possibly on our trip to Las Vegas, so if you’re traveling there I advise you to wash your hands constantly, as if you’re on an ocean cruise). Get well my Sweetie, possibly helped along by listening to that above song performed in ballad-style by your even-more-favorite-singer, Tony Bennett. For the rest of you, on to the review of another, much-more-traumatic-celestial-trip than our Italian-American troubadours are offering.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
The Martian (Ridley Scott)
Sometime in Earth’s near future, a NASA expedition to Mars goes wrong when a fierce storm forces the crew to evacuate, leaving one behind presumed dead; however,
he survived, which forces him to use all of his scientific knowledge to figure out how to stay alive for the 4 years it will take for a rescue ship to finally retrieve him from the inhospitable Red Planet.
What Happens: As our story opens the crew of the Ares III exploration-expedition is on Mars (commanded by Melissa Lewis [Jessica Chastain]) gathering samples and information for possible future colonization of the planet; suddenly a horrendous storm blows in on them (making even the furious sand or hail storms I’ve witnessed in west Texas seem nicely tolerable by comparison), forcing a speedy evacuation that’s not quite quick enough to keep them from being battered by a tornado-level-barrage of rocks and soil which separates botanist Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) from the others. Despite Lewis’ desperate attempt to locate Watney, there’s no intercom response from him so they sorrowfully leave, assuming he’s dead, which they radio back to Earth leading to a sad announcement to the press by NASA head Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels). However, Watney’s merely been knocked unconscious so when he revives, with the oxygen level in his spacesuit dangerously low, he retreats to the shelter of the crew’s former constructed habitat where he first has to extract a piece of metal from his injured body, staple himself up, then begin to log in for an ongoing series of video diary entries while plotting what to do until a rescue team can arrive, a process that he knows will take 4 years before the next Ares mission is scheduled to arrive. Using all of the scientific knowledge that he can muster, Watney creates a garden in his dwelling, sealed off by sheets of plastic into which he brings Martian soil, fertilizer from his store of packaged human waste, moisture from some heat-based-process that condenses vapor from his habitat-atmosphere, and chunks of potatoes from the supplies left by his crew, which successfully results in new plants that will enhance and extend his existing food supply, possibly long enough to sustain him if he can keep using new spuds to grow even newer ones (while, I suppose, keeping a bit of that manufactured water for himself as well).
As time goes on his situation gets more hopeful due both to satellite photos from above Mars that indicate to NASA observers that something’s still active around the supposedly-abandoned-base and to his own decision to take his rover to the site where the Pathfinder probe has lain dormant since 1997 so that he can use the unit’s camera to transmit pictures up to the satellite, then onto Earth, enabling some crude communication as the lens points toward signs that he’s made.
His connections to Earth are vastly improved, though, as links are made from the satellite to the computer in his rover so that he can send and receive text messages (although the time delay in transmission doesn’t make for very quick interchanges). There’s joy on Earth that he’s alive with plans then immediately underway to send supplies to him, although there don’t seem to be any reserve rockets with Mars-distance-capacity so creating such before he runs out of food becomes a top priority; sadly, a rush job ends in disaster when it explodes after launch, finally leading to cooperation with the CNSA (China National Space Agency—a plot element that harks back to the benevolent internationalism of The Day the Earth Stood Still [Robert Wise, 1951]) to use their classified super-booster, which becomes a necessity which an accident at Watney’s camp exposes his garden to the frigid Martian atmosphere leading to instant freezing of the plants and no hope of survival unless he can get help. To complicate matters, though, he also finds out that his crew doesn’t know he’s still on Mars because NASA decided that they needed to focus on their own difficult return trip rather than bemoan their guilt over mistakenly leaving a colleague behind. When Sanders finally does break the news to Lewis, though, he couples it with the order that they will return to Earth rather than attempt a return-rescue-mission. But, she leads her crew in a mutiny, forcing NASA to help them with the procedure secretly radioed to them by young astrophysicist Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) to use Earth’s gravity to slingshot the Hermes back toward Mars, even as they pick up that vital payload of supplies rocketed up to them during their swing around Earth.
Conveniently, a shuttle is already in place on the Red Planet for use by the later-coming-Ares IV-team, so Watney makes the difficult journey of many days in his rover to that location (he gets some advice on how to rig it to provide sufficient air, water, etc. for the journey), fires up the shuttle in proper timing to link up with the Hermes when it’s close enough to him (although first he has to strip of it of excess weight, so even the nosecone is gone, covered over with a tarp!), but can’t make a smooth connect (further, Hermes has to be partially damaged in order to slow down its acceleration to sync up with incoming Watney) so between puncturing his spacesuit for use of the escaping gases to propel himself in space and Lewis going out from the Hermes on a tether, they manage to grab each other (not without difficulty, of course) then get safely back home (with no mutiny trials, not even the good-natured one that awaited Admiral Kirk [William Shatner] in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Leonard Nimoy, 1986]), where Watney becomes a trainer for future astronauts.
So What? The Martian is a marvelous story, about human compassion on the part of the many involved in the planning along with the execution of an extremely difficult, costly expedition just to rescue 1 left-behind-explorer as well as showing the indefatigable-will-to-survive that Watney both epitomizes and relishes to pass on to the next generation of space pioneers. Further, the science seems to be as accurate as it can be within a purely fictional context (unlike another space-rescue-drama, Apollo 13 [Ron Howard, 1995], which was bound to essential facts in a manner that The Martian could deviate from or at least pursue hypothetical options grounded in scientific-probability [as was the case with many aspects of the even-larger-rescue-fiction, Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014; review in our November 13, 2014 posting], where the fate of all humankind is on the edge of extinction), resulting from extensive consultation to Scott’s production team from NASA experts (even to the extreme point of screening the finished film on the International Space Station on September 19, 2015 before it opened down here)—too bad they weren’t able to tell Dr. Watney about the recent seeming-discovery of water on Mars’ surface so he wouldn’t have had to rig up that complex system of his to extract it from his artificial atmosphere, almost blowing himself up in the process the first time he tested it. Despite all of this scientific seriousness, however, the film also provides some great moments of humor, as in a scene where Watney finds himself facing immediate death when his helmet is cracked from the explosion that destroys his crops but he provides an immediate solution that many (like me) in the audience can relate to when he simply seals it again with a few strips of duct tape, proving once again that simple solutions to complex problems often offer the best strategy. On a more practical level, we learn a few things by inference, such as that Watney’s days are measured as “SOLs” (which enter the 500 + range before his ordeal is over), in that Mars rotates differently than Earth so that its day is slightly longer, which would create confusion for the astronauts exploring (or living, in Watney’s case) there when they spoke with NASA about where they all are on the temporal continuum.
|No mistake here; this is how this shot looks in the film|
as the spaceship rotates to maintain inner gravity.
We also learn how drastically different real space travel becomes compared to the “hyper drives” and “warp drives” of the Star Wars and Star Trek stories where such fictional devices are necessary to move the action along, whereas in our solar system it takes the Hermes 414 days to bridge the gap between Earth and Mars so an additional burden awaits that crew (which they willingly accept) when they choose to abandon their almost-home-status in order to go after Watney in that they’re adding years to the time they’ll be away from their loved ones (Watney, for convenient storytelling purposes, doesn’t seem to have anyone waiting for him back on Earth so that his unintended-isolation is a focused-experience of trauma, rather than one that requires us to extend further sympathy to people desperate—even devastated, upon first reports of his death—for his safe return). Another reality that we encounter is the brutally-desolate-beauty of the Red Planet, captured in powerfully-impressive-images of the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, which has also been used to depict our planetary neighbor in other Martian-set-stories, such as Mission to Mars (Brian De Palma, 2000), Red Planet (Anthony Hoffman, 2000—which I admit I attempted to attend a late screening of when at a convention in Seattle that year only to wonder why the opening credits were so quickly flowing into the closing ones until I realized I slept through the whole thing and haven’t tried yet to see what I missed), as well as The Last Days on Mars (Ruairi Robinson, 2013), a collection of relatively-recent-movies of varying qualities that also explore aspects of colonizing Mars despite the inherent difficulties—plausible or far-fetched—in such a venture.
As I note below, Damon’s performance is terrific in this film, although he’s surrounded (on screen with actors in other locations, not actually with him on Mars) by excellent co-stars; in addition to the solid work offered by Daniels and Chastain, there are great performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors Vincent Kapoor and Mitch Henderson; Benedict Wong as Bruce Ng, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab; and Michael Peña as astronaut Rick Martinez, a Hermes crew member. Among many others in the cast, though, we also have Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, NASA spokesperson, who really doesn’t get to do much more than stand around looking worried a lot. At times packing smaller roles with name-brand-actors can be frustratingly counterproductive, as you're led to expect more than the script allows them to accomplish.
Bottom Line Final Comments: I can’t blame original ... Martian novelist Andy Weir for writing a book in 2011 that would end up having parallel-aspects to a later film, Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013; review in our October 9, 2013 posting), about an astronaut trying desperately to get back to Earth from the still-precarious-but-much-nearer-satellite-height above our own thin layer of atmosphere, but with this previous film being regarded so highly (97% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, 96% from Metacritic), as well as being nominated for 10 Oscars (winning 7, including Best Director, Best Cinematography [Emmanuel Lubezki, winner also in 2014 for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu; review in our November 6, 2014 posting)], and Best Visual Effects) it’s hard for me to ignore its presence when dealing with the somewhat-similar-story in The Martian, although in the earlier film the plot situation of NASA biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is about how she’s able to use grit, cunning, and sheer resolve to get herself back to Earth after being stranded far over our planet while participating in a repair of the Hubble Telescope, unlike Dr. Watney’s similarly-brilliant-short-term-survival-tactics on a much-more-distant-world but in a situation where he’s totally dependent on Earth’s NASA team to ultimately get him out of his marooned status. Something that author Weir could be held a bit more responsible for, though, is the recurring use of the “slingshot” tactic of flying close to a celestial body to use its gravity as a propelling force to fling a spaceship into a certain direction with enough propulsion to overcome some navigation limitation providing a crisis for the characters. This is also a key factor in 2 of the main characters' use of a black hole’s gravity to travel to a distant part of the galaxy in Interstellar so I guess I could level the same complaint against Christopher Nolan, but I am getting a bit tired of this gimmick after seeing it way back in 1986 (first time for me but it may have been borrowed then as well) when the crew of the Enterprise used it to sling themselves around the Sun in order to travel to our present day planet from their futuristic-version of Earth then return again with whales in tow in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
But, for that matter I could also complain about casting choices setting up confusions about who to trust in interplanetary travel, given that Damon as Dr. Mann becomes the psychotic villain in Interstellar, his character again stranded on an inhospitable distant planet (although light years further away than Mars), almost killing Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in hand-to-hand-combat, then severely damaging the hero’s ship before killing himself in a failed docking maneuver. Now Damon’s back as the crafty-but-heroic-loner on Mars, set against another difficult-extra-narrative-reality to try to ignore, as all of these stories about high drama in outer space begin to unintentionally interact (including with Chastain as Commander of the Hermes in this current film making sure that 1 man makes it back to Earth alive yet in Interstellar she’s Cooper’s daughter, “Murph,” who becomes the co-savior of our whole species when Dad’s able to get information to her from inside of a black hole, allowing her scientific team on Earth to solve the gravity-conquering-problem that had previously prevented a mass evacuation of our doomed planet), almost requiring a scorecard to help us recall if the goal is to get back to Earth or leave it or maybe just find George Clooney (Lt. Matt Kowalski, who sacrifices himself as he drifts off into infinity to help Dr. Stone save herself in Gravity) so that he and Damon can do another Ocean’s … movie in Las Vegas before our whole Big Blue Marble turns into such a desert environment. (If so, I’d advise them to be careful with the chicken Caesar salad at Señor Frog’s on the Strip, which might be the culprit in Nina’s bowel discomfort, although we have no definitive proof of that, so for now we’ll just leave it at “no accusations, no lawsuits, but no more food”; OK, hombres?)
Therefore, I found myself a bit perplexed in trying to settle on a rating for The Martian because, while I enjoyed it immensely for a number of its elements—the effective use of the ongoing-video-log so that Watney could essentially narrate what was going on in his isolated life without the use of unlikely soliloquies as he went about his desperate daily business; the contrast between his singular determination to conquer the crop-growing, water-creation, Earth-contact challenges he faced in his singularly-focused-actions to keep alive vs. the frantic activity of so many back on Earth as NASA leaders struggled with attempts to reach Watney, at least with additional supplies during his 4-year-isolation before the new rescue team could reach him; and, not least of all, the survival lessons learned while watching this film that turn out to be much more science than fiction (see the 3rd link noted in the cluster below)—as well as the superb acting by Damon as a man alone facing seemingly-insurmountable-odds but rarely losing his composure despite the constant threats to his life (although we might have been spared his “darkest nights of the soul” in that most of what we see of him is either part of his ongoing-video-diary or his assertive actions on behalf of his continuance so maybe his moments of despair are kept private from us—just as they were from NASA, both with the diaries for future-retrieval and his direct-computer-contact)—I just couldn’t fully dismiss the sensation that I’ve too often seen a lot of this before in various ways, although it’s been purposefully repackaged here so as to have new elements that don’t just play off “lost in space” scenarios that can be traced all the way back—if not even further— to that last, lone astronaut trying to solve the mysteries of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).
Even the decision by the Hermes crew to defy orders, head back to Mars, and save their teammate has a Star Trek-sensibility to it, just as the last-second-rescue of Watney by Cmdr. Lewis, with the 2 of them wrapped up in the tether seems to be “take 2” from Gravity, allowing both Clooney and Bullock to connect properly in their attempt to rejoin their own spacecraft rather than him needing to cut loose so that she’d have a better chance to make it back alone to Earth. When I put all of that together I just can’t come up with the superlative score for The Martian recorded by the tallies in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (unusually-lofty-numbers of 93% and 81% positive ratings respectively), but that doesn’t mean it’s a film lacking in merit or my encouragement to seek it out (plenty of viewers already have, as it's accumulated about $54.3 million at the domestic box-office after just 1 week in release). It’s just that serious-sci-fi-stories that so earnestly offer us alternatives to creatures from the Great Beyond (such as the Alien franchise) and invading marauders (bug-eyed-destroyers such as in Independence Day [Roland Emmerich, 1996] and so many others like it) are beginning to overlap in such a manner as to steal each other’s thunder so maybe it’s time we turned our cinematic interests to the wealth of material already available from decades of great sci-fi-fiction-writers (certainly including Robert A. Heinlein’s 1961 classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, about a mystic human born on Mars but relocated to Earth) in hopes of enlarging these approaches to adult-level-sci-fi-cinema to include the sorts of in-depth-explorations of extraterrestrial existence that we’ve occasionally been treated to in the past with such intriguing fare as 2001, along with The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976), Man Facing Southeast (Eliseo Subiela, 1986—but please watch this sublime Argentine original rather than the U.S. pseudo-remake, K-PAX [Iain Softley, 2001]), and District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009).
One thing that The Martian does achieve exceptionally well, though (even as I admit that with all of the other good things that it regularly accomplishes, it’s likely a better experience for most viewers than indicated by my long-considered-compromise- 3½-star-rating, a not-fully-indicative-score considering how much I enjoyed watching what was on-screen, even as I nitpick it after the fact), is provide me with an easy choice for a Musical Metaphor that speaks to its presentation, a song that’s even included in its closing-credits-soundtrack, Gloria Gaynor’s version of “I Will Survive” (from the 1978 Love Tracks album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpVQFhRwWQw, the special, longer “disco version” (see if you can survive this constant repetition of what works just fine in its original, much-shorter, hit-record incarnation) chosen as a final tribute to Dr. Watney’s sarcastic-disgust with the only music left behind on Mars by his crew being Cmdr. Lewis’ disco collection that came close to snatching whatever sanity that he so desperately tried to maintain during his many months of isolation. However, I think it’s only reasonable that I also give you a song of my own choice, from roughly the same late 20th-century-time-frame, so here’s Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (on the 1972 Honky Château album), with its less-than-joyful-attitude, facing grimly the more negative aspects of space travel with its dehumanizing effects on those who’ve chosen this difficult profession (for the benefit of our planetary-challenged-species in our real lives but just as a brain-deadening-but-well-paying-profession in John’s lyrics) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqmfC0fQwPA from a 1984 concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, a performance even longer than Gaynor’s disco extension so that whatever I may be shorting you in words this week from my usual analytical epistles I’ll make up with lots of music to keep you entertained. But, after you’ve faced the music, I'm done until I return next time, possibly with more diverse filmic material than a singular-focus on outer-space-ramblings and—hopefully—increasingly good news about Nina’s inner-space-rumblings.
I'll also pass on encouraging wishes to my so-far-silent partner, Pat Craig, up in Washington state recovering from knee-replacement-surgery. I hope you're up and around soon, Pat—but while you're recuperating if you feel like watching a DVD and writing something about it ... OK, I'll stick with science instead of fantasy for Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark, but do get well soon.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about The Martian:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nx5NZw5jSNA (“Just How Accurate Is ‘The Martian’?”) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OIq0ED29WWE (Ellen DeGeneres spoofs the film with a short parody trailer starring Matt Damon and Kim Kardashian); or, if you really want to get silly go here—https://www.youtube.com/watchv=meZDEjhV7rE&list=PLDS7_2kWlmrEqF0j0dUntbf8P39AyXRMl
—to a Warner Bros. cartoon starring Marvin the Martian and Daffy Duck, as the first video in a collection of 200 short ones about Marvin, the Bugs Bunny-Michael Jordan “epic” Space Jam (Joe Pytka, 1996), Nike Air Jordan shoes, etc.
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
WE DO OUR VERY BEST TO PRESENT THESE TWO GUYS POSTINGS IN A VISUALLY-CONSIDERED GRAPHIC LAYOUT, BUT EXTENSIVE TRIAL-AND-ERROR HAS SHOWN US THAT UNLESS YOU’RE READING OUR REVIEWS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 9.0 YOU’LL LIKELY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (but Google Chrome 45.0.2454.101 usually comes fairly close to our intentions). OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT SLOP THAT WE CAN’T CONTROL.