Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian

3.5/4

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan

Rated PG-13 for Some Strong Language, Injury Images, and Brief Nudity

"The Martian," like "Interstellar" last year, is science-based science fiction.  There are no aliens, space battles or interstellar travel (no pun intended).  This is about how one man could survive on Mars, and how a rescue could be attempted.  Of course, neither story is without its setbacks.

The Ares 3 mission to the Red Planet has gone off without a hitch.  It consists of a crew of six: Captain Melissa Lewis (Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Pena), chemist Aksel Vogel (Hennie), specialists Chris Beck (Stan) and Beth Johannsen (Mara, and botanist Mark Watney (Damon).  While outside, a severe storm hit earlier than anticipated, and the crew is forced to abandon the mission.  On the way to the ship, Mark is hit by a dish and presumed dead.  Unable to look for him before the shuttle tips over, Melissa gives the order to leave him behind.  What they don't know is that Mark is not dead.  However, his relief is short lived, as he is unable to contact his crew or NASA, and supplies will only last him 30 days.

"The Martian" is a dense and intelligent film; anyone intent on turning off their brain or who isn't paying attention will find themselves lost or confused.  Normally, I appreciate films that engage me on an intellectual level, but there are times when this works against the film.  It's not that it's too smart (no one paying attention will get lost, at least not for more than a few moments).  It's that it's at times heavy on the math and science, and those who aren't good at techy stuff will be a bit confused. Still, the film never forgets to explain what it means to the characters, and that's what's important.

For a movie that was initially posted for free on a blog, which led it to being sold on the Kindle, the film boasts an impressive budget ($109 million), director (Ridley Scott) and cast.  Scott has a filmography that can only be described as uneven; in addition to "Alien," "Black Hawk Down," and "Body of Lies," he also helmed "Hannibal," "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Thelma and Louise."  He also directed "Gladiator," which everyone seemed to love but me, Roger Ebert, and a local film critic.  Fortunately, this is one of his stronger efforts.  It's well paced, looks incredible (avoid the 3-D though), and tremendously exciting.

There isn't a flat performance in the cast, but considering who is in it, that's not surprising.  It's hard not to like Matt Damon.  He can play a villain ("The Departed," for example), but he's like Tom Hanks or Steve Carrell: there's something inherently sympathetic about him.  That's crucial for the film to work, since half the movie rests on his shoulders.  Damon accomplishes this with ease; with his steadfast determination and wry sense of humor, it's impossible not to root for him.  Jessica Chastain continues to effortlessly impress with every role that she takes on (incidentally, both had roles in the aforementioned "Interstellar").  Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA.  The likable character actor is more dark and intense than he is known for, but that's because Teddy is more of a pragmatist.  He wants to bring Watney home, but the risks and the price are huge.  The rest of the cast, which includes veterans such as Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig (as a NASA worker) and up-and-comers like Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, is top notch.

Clearly, Fox has Oscar in its headlights, but it's too early to say whether or not it will hold up, or be remembered (the Academy has a notoriously short memory span...witness "Birdman" taking home most of the honors from the much better received "Boyhood" last year) when it comes time to dole out the nominations.  But that's just the side story.  Whatever the Academy decides, "The Martian" remains a very good film, and well worth seeking out in the theater.

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