What I'm Watching: The Martian
I got out to the theatre today, and sure, I could've seen a certain other movie, but first I really wanted to see The Martian. Everyone is talking about this movie, it seems. And before that, everyone was talking about the book, plus a solid cast and crew, and a thrilling scifi adventure, drew me in.
First off, I have not read the book, so I will be talking wholly about the movie here. So let's review the shit out of this.
The Martian, in case you've been stranded on another planet, is about a mission to Mars that, midway through it's scheduled trip, encounters a storm, and abandons their base. In the process, astronaut Mark Watney is swept away and believed dead, and left behind. Through amazing luck, he survives, but with no one coming back for him, no returning mission for another four years or so, and very limited supplies, his odds of survival don't look good. He lived, yay! But he'll still die, boo.
One of my favourite tv shows frequently talked about how if there's a problem, you solve that one thing, and then move on. If you're stuck in a burning building, and the only way out is a 10th story window, well you jump out the window and figure out the next step on your way down. You do everything you can to solve the immediate problem, and stay alive long enough to work on the next one.
The Martian takes that idea to the nth degree, by stranding Mark Watney in the hostile Martian landscape, with just a thin shell between him and oblivion at any given moment. If he's lucky. The movie ended by summing up almost the exact same idea, and it may be the single best example of that perseverance and stubbornness.
This sets up a struggle on multiple fronts. Watney, played by Matt Damon, has to somehow find ways to survive, trying to figure out each problem as it comes, starting with such issues as food, water, air...and whatever else the planet Mars may throw at him. Meanwhile on Earth, once they discover he's still alive, they have to figure out how to get him food or rescue or anything to keep him going until a full mission can be planned.
In a lot of ways, I keep coming back to the Michael Bay movie, Armageddon. Which I loathe. I've often called that "Murphy's Law: The Movie" where everything that could go wrong in the plot, did go wrong. Much the same thing happens here, and I'm trying to figure out just why it works for The Martian, but not in Armageddon. I think with Bay's effort, the movie would pretty much just throw problems at the characters as plot devices. We need, drama, have a bolt come loose! With The Martian, every problem feels organic, and grows out of every previous instance. A happens, Watney does B, which causes C, so he does E, which makes F blow up.
I'm also struggling to think of just how to classify this movie. Sure, in truth, it's science fiction, but that gives such a specific connotation, and while this isn't a true story, it sure does feel like one. Aside from a few scientific inaccuracies, this is more like science fact that Just Hasn't Happened Yet. It's way more Science than Fiction, and that's great. The movie remains very grounded, and that helps the plot. There's very few moments of unavailability, as some other movies might cause from their more fantastical natures.
It's almost a thriller, as you're on the edge of your seat, waiting to see how the next thing is going to pan out, what Mark's going to do next, and inevitably how things will go wrong, but still progress in a positive direction.
One of the biggest issues with the movie, is that a lot of the action is reduced to montage sequences of Watney doing his science thing. Which isn't bad, but it does start to become a bit overused as a way to shove the plot forward quickly. In a novel, you can get past that quicker by just saying stuff, but in a movie, you need to keep the plot moving, and do it clearly for the audiences. Which isn't to say things are dumbed down, just glossed over in some ways.
Which is fine, really. This movie is directed by Ridley Scott, who was once one of my favourite directors, but around the time of Gladiator, his movies started to feel, for me, really bloated and slow, with a lot of stuff that I felt could be trimmed out. It made good art though, just felt really slow at timesWith The Martian, it feels like he's gotten that balance right again. It slows down a little bit, but there's very little I'd trim, if anything. And he still gets in plenty of beauty and art into the proceedings. I think some of that comes from being a novel adaptation, since they can use voiceovers of Watney that would've been internal monologues in a novel, but keep the plot movie while he stares at the Martian landscapes.
Another issue that some people will have with the movie is that there is a lot of talking. A LOT. Which is to be expected, since Watney is stranded on the planet all by his lonesome. He needs to convey information to the audience, and he does this via logs he keeps at the base, and in the rover, and everywhere else. But it does have a lot of talking. The good thing here is, the dialogue is sharp, it moves along at a fair clip, and of course, it's delivered by Matt Damon. The bulk of the movie rests on his shoulders, and he carries it off perfectly. You're invested in his charm, and the dialogue is full of it, and is interesting.
Fortunately, the movie also has a lot of stuff going on back on Earth, to break that up, and keep the plot moving from another direction. That's just smart filmmaking, and if the film had just been Mark on Mars, it would've gotten old fast. But we wisely know when to jump back to Earth to check back in on what they're doing, and move the plot forward, and there's also a few solid moments of point and counterpoint with clever juxtapositions of events in the various locales.
This is far from an action packed adventure (but it still has plenty of that sprinkled around), features a lot of talking, and science montages, but it still manages to keep the tension high, due to the high stakes. They may be the stakes of a single man's life, but that's important, and the movie sells you on that very simple importance. In a lot of ways, this movie probably shouldn't work, but so many elements came together in just the right ways to pull off something very entertaining.
I quite enjoyed The Martian, and any of my complaints are minor. This is a thrilling adventure of the human spirit and its ability to persevere and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Great direction, a solid cast, and a stellar performance by Matt Damon, have made this one of my favourite science fiction movies of the year, and it definitely transcends the limitations implied by that name. If you haven't seen The Martian, I highly recommend it.