At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Martian “2015”

At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Martian “2015”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/Genre: Sci-Fi/Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko/Runtime: 144 minutes

In the long-ago year of 2015, iconic film helmer Sir Ridley Scott found himself in a bit of a predicament. That being that, among his work output around that time, 2 of the films were financially successful yet proved to be divisive and the other was just….well the less said about Exodus: Gods and Kings the better truthfully. At any rate, it became clear that what this distinct member of the film helming community desperately needed was a movie that could be embraced in equal measure by both the casual movie goer and the film reviewing community in equal measure. So, surprise surprise, we see that Ridley decided to return to the cosmos to make a cinematic adaptation of a novel known as The Martian and have none other than Matt Damon take on the lead role of a guy getting stuck on, and subsequently engaging in a battle for survival on, the surface of Mars following a mission gone wrong. Of course, with that in mind, I should point out that whenever Ridley Scott has chosen to make a movie in outer space it might be time to be concerned for that particular film’s hero or heroes. I say that because, without going into spoilers, things usually wind up being pretty bleak with the possibility of loss of life a heck of a lot stronger than say a more positive and upbeat filmmaker decided to make the film instead. Imagine my surprise then, upon viewing this film, to discover the end result isn’t just merely a genuinely great slice of cinema that will keep you riveted from beginning to end. Rather, it is also an atypically positive and dare I say even optimistic slice of cinema from a director whose filmography could best be described as every shade of negative to some degree or another under the sun from heartbreaking all the way to just straight up nihilistic and every stop in between. Suffice it to say then that The Martian is more than just a phenomenally made behind the camera and extremely well-acted by a brilliant cast of players in front of the camera film that I loved every minute of. Rather, it is also a rousing cinematic tribute to the powers of ingenuity and intellect in even the direst of circumstances, a celebration of the spirit of collaboration in achieving no less than the seemingly impossible, and a true ode to the distinct majesty and wonder that is only found courtesy of the exploration of outer space be it voluntarily or in the name of survival because you were abandoned Kevin McAllister from Home Alone-style on another planet.

The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian takes us a solid 12 years, as of the writing of this review, in the future to the year 2035 where we get to witness as the brave, courageous, and highly skilled 6-person crew of the Ares III is in the midst of their 31-sol mission on the desert landscape of the planet Mars. Yet we see things soon take a turn for the nightmarish when a swift and vicious storm causes the crew to have to evacuate the planet. An evacuation incidentally that would have worked without a hitch had the affable and snarky team botanist, one Mark Watney, not been slammed into by a projectile that was torn off their base, flung into the storm, and believed to be tragically no longer among the living by both his crew and the rest of NASA back in Houston. Perhaps more remarkable than that however is the fact that Watney, despite everyone thinking to the contrary, actually has managed to survive this incident albeit with a few injuries to both his physical form to say nothing of his ego. Now, despite not having much in the way of resources to say of being all alone a solid 140 million miles from the Earth, we see that our intrepid hero must utilize a high degree of both ingenuity and resourcefulness if he is to have even a shooting star’s chance to survive. Of course, as Watney is engaged in his personal battle for survival against the elements on Mars, it should come as no surprise that we also soon see that the upper tiers of the hierarchy at little ol’ NASA are able to learn of their more than slightly grave mistake as well and as a result soon begin putting their heads together as well in order to try and cobble together a rescue mission. Thus, with the group of players and the stage for this most distinct game of survival having been set in motion, can our hero and the brilliant minds at NASA, despite the vast distance between them, find a way to ensure his survival for no less a time than the next 4 years with the endgame in mind of eventually, against seemingly all odds, bringing him back home to our lovely little blue and green planet alive and well? That dear reader I will leave for you to discover for yourself…..

Now right off the bat I think praise must be given to this film’s screenwriter, one Drew Goddard, for taking a novel that was full to the brim with a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo (to some people anyway) and managing to keep those intricate details intact whilst also making them a heck of a lot more comprehensible for the non-rocket scientists among the movie goers out there who might decide to sit down and watch this. As a result, yes there is a lot of technical lingo being spoken in this, but at least it’s easier to comprehend so if you wish to go back and Google it after the movie is done you’ll be able to understand it a bit better to say nothing of remember some of the big words they use easier. Speaking of that, I also think praise should be given to this slice of cinema for the fact that, much like its literary source material, it really does take a very realistic approach to both Watney’s plight as well as the solutions he and others come up with to help him either make the best of it or resolve it permanently. As a result, some of the ideas may seem a bit far-fetched (like the “special” potatoes), but trust me when I say that they are all rooted in actual science. Along with that, I will also point out that although Scott does do a fine job of maintaining a steady undercurrent of suspense quite steadily throughout this slice of cinema, he also ensures that the overarching tone that it works with is one comprised in equal parts by delightful workplace comedy, reciprocal respect being shared by a variety of people for one another, and a brilliant individual finding his intellect being given quite the test courtesy of a rather incredible set of circumstances while equally as brilliant people back on Earth desperately try to come up with a way to bring him home respectively. Plus I also must confess at this time that this is easily the most beautiful movie that Ridley Scott has shot in a long time. Indeed not only in the scenes set on Mars where the vibrant and truly gorgeous with just a hint of both haunting and desolate in equal measure landscapes look like something you might see more so in a locale like Arches National Park or in Namibia where they brought Mad Max: Fury Road roaring to life instead of on a fellow celestial body in our solar system, but even the space station, the rockets utilized, and the various office spaces including the phenomenal design for the futuristic NASA HQ all look extremely detailed if not exactly like places that mankind could realistically decide to construct and make into an incredible reality at some point in our collective future. I also would like to praise this slice of cinema for having one of the more delightfully distinct soundtracks that an entry in the sci-fi genre of movie magic has had in quite some time. Indeed by having Watney’s mission commander be a complete and utter nut for disco music, this slice of cinema is able to use that to its advantage and bring into this movie at points throughout its runtime such music gems as Waterloo from ABBA, Rock the Boat, Starman from David Bowie, Hot Stuff from Donna Summer, I Will Survive, and even Love Train at the very end of the movie. Suffice it to say that not only does this rocking soundtrack really help to distinguish this slice of cinema from others of a similar ilk, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself really groovin’ along to the music as well (something I may or may not have done while watching this. Please don’t judge me dear reader….at least not too much). Suffice it to say then that the work being done behind the camera isn’t just phenomenal. Rather, it is also a riveting example of movie magic at its finest.

Of course, the other big component to a slice of cinema like this working on the level that this one ultimately does is the fact that the truly impressive cast in front of the camera all manage to deliver truly fantastic performances. This starts with Matt Damon as the titular individual and honestly he is absolutely terrific and he definitely deserved the Oscar nod that he got for his performance in this slice of cinema. Indeed Damon has always been one of my favorite actors and for the role of Mark Watney he not only brings his typical charisma, but also a wonderfully snarky sense of humor as well with some of his lines including “I’m going to have to science the sugar honey ice tea out of this” definitely being ones that will earn a laugh out of you no matter if it’s your first or your 71st time watching the movie. Not only that, but because of Damon’s inherent likability, you really do find yourself caring about Watney and his rather unique plight which is important especially because for about 98% of his screentime he is completely on his own plus he also really does make the actions that his character conducts throughout including the growth of a rather special brand of potatoes seem 110% believable and authentic as well. Suffice it to say that it is a truly amazing performance and one of the best from a performer who always finds a way to bring just that to every single project he is a part of no matter the size of his role. I also really do dig pretty much the entirety of the impressive supporting cast that has been assembled to back Damon up in this. This starts with the always wonderful Jeff Daniels in the role of NASA Administrator Teddy Sanders. Indeed, this is a role that easily could have become the stereotypical “bullheaded corporate antagonist who makes life difficult for everyone else”, but in Daniels’ more than capable hands the guy really doesn’t ever thankfully descend into straight up villainy. Rather, he becomes a three-dimensional character who, besides showing his humanity at points, also does make some legit points throughout about his decisions he engages in and the process to making those decisions respectively. Suffice it to say that it is quite the multifaceted performance and one that Daniels delivers brilliantly. Also worthy of note in the NASA official group is both Sean Bean who, besides not dying for once (if you know you know), is also brilliantly cast as flight director Mitch Henderson and the always engaging Chiwetel Ejiofor as Director of Mars Missions Vincent Kapoor. Indeed not only do both of these talents provide riveting performances, but they also do a wonderful job at bringing heart and genuine passion to the proceedings as well. I would also be amiss if I didn’t take the time to mention the work done here by Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, and Aksel Hennie as Watney’s devoted crew mates on the Ares III mission respectively. Indeed, not only do they all play their respective characters wonderfully even if some get a tad bit more screentime than others, but you genuinely believe that these people are genuinely a space crew, but also that they all do care about one another to such an extent that they would be willing to…well I think it best for you to see for yourself what they choose to do. Suffice it to say that when you also factor in terrific efforts from such screen talents as Mackenzie Davis, some guy named Childish Gambino (wink wink), and one of the MCU’s MVP’s Benedict Wong with the latter two incidentally also getting some truly genuine laughs out of me during their respective amounts of screentime to name but a few examples I think it can definitely be said that the work done by the cast in this film is genuinely out of this world in every sense of the word.

All in all is The Martian a perfect slice of cinema? Honestly no, but that’s ok. Truthfully few movies manage to ever pull that distinct accomplishment off. At the same time though there is no denying that this is one slice of cinema that is most assuredly out of this world (pun intended). Indeed in case that didn’t spell it out for you enough to put two ant five together dear reader I really do dig the heck out of this movie. I mean the work behind the camera is no less than grade-A from the phenomenal soundtrack of disco-era gems as well as just how plain stunning this movie looks and was filmed to say nothing of the fact that it operates, in the aftermath of his previous trio of directorial efforts, as an absolutely fantastic return to form for its iconic helmer. Along with that, the work done in front of the camera by this slice of cinema’s truly stacked cast of talent all do a wonderful job with their respective characters starting with no less an icon than Matt Damon who is just perfect in the lead role. Not only in bringing them vividly to life mind you, but in fleshing them out significantly so they feel less like fictional characters or (even worse) archetypes and more like three-dimensional, genuine, and realistic human beings much like you or me. Suffice it to say that it might have its miniscule issues, but at the end of the day The Martian makes for a truly riveting slice of cinema as well as something else. That being no more and less than a wonderful and rousing tribute to the majesty and wonder of outer space exploration, the fortitude of the human spirit, the strength of our will when pushed up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and of a distinct hope. The hope that, despite the differences that divide us, should a circumstance arise that requires it that we all could put those differences aside and unite to achieve a goal that could save a person’s life and, in the process, bring all of us on this planet closer together than ever before. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Martian a solid 4 out of 5.