So cinephiles will be well aware of film sub-genres like the 90s weaponry porn, the more contemporary disaster porn, grisly torture porn and indeed regular old porn porn. Well in light of Ridley Scott’s The Martian, I present to you improvisation porn. I recall the most impressive bits of Apollo 13 being the sequences that have the finest minds engaging in testing feats of ingenious improvisation with lives on the line. There was also the added bonus of the flat-topped Ed Harris reminding us of how NASA’s finest moment beckoned. Well another disaster (fictional, mind you) has befallen NASA as Matt Damon’s
Dr. Mann Mark Watney is left behind on Mars.
Watney was part of a team undertaking some scientific research into the red rocky terrain of mars (I realise now we are unaware to the focus of said research effort) when an unanticipated but narratively convenient red-dust storm forces the evacuation of his team led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain with Micheal Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Henie, Kate Mara). There is a massive hitch causing Watney to fall behind when he is struck by some debris and Lewis, as commander, makes the tough call to leave Mark behind in lieu of the rest of the crew’s safety and presumption of his demise.
Well assumption, they say, is the mother of all… Mark is alive and well, save for the metal pole in his gut, and now he was the big red planet to contend with. Mark’s immediate concern is patching himself up and director Ridley Scott serves us some semi-distressing stuff as he picks out some metal chunk from his gut and staples himself up but from here on, the film lightens up significantly considering Damon survival prospects are near zero.
There is a tremendous charm and buoyancy to this film’s tone well driven by its lead, a strong script (by Drew Goddard) and Scott’s direction. Scott has always fancied the epic visuals. Here he captures the giant desolate landscape of Mars beautifully along with space shots of looming planets and massive space crafts gliding through zero gravity. The touch of humour in this script was extremely welcome and eases us through this narrative that should have, otherwise, been quite depressing. The Martian is not really about solitude neither is it harsh portrait of human resilience.
Mark never breaks down in fits of mental despair. He is not broken. He remains upbeat and faithful to science. This film is pretty much a love letter to critical thinking and scientific problem solving. Mark solves the problem of a hole in his gut with self-surgery (which has nothing on De Niro in Ronin by the way) and moves on to the next big problem which is staying alive long enough for the next manned mission in roughly 4 years. The food rations will not be enough and food cannot grow on the terra form of Mars but hold on now – Mark is a botanist. Challenge accepted.
He manages to successfully grow some potatoes with the help of human excreta and he overcomes this hurdle but a few await. Thankfully he has the best minds carry him through as NASA come to realize via satellite that he is indeed alive and well. The support cast is quite functional keeping with the film’s pacing and adding to the humour where necessary. Jeff Daniels is at the top of the food chain as NASA’s pragmatic director with Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover etc. adding layers of empathy, quirk and urgency.
There are shades of guilt when the focus shifts to his Lewis and her crew but not enough to spoil party spurred on by a funky retro-pop soundtrack that features prominently in the finale which would have been a nail biting stuff in any other film but quite soothing here. I’m not quite sure that really benefits the film in the grand scheme of things. I could have done with a little more intensity.
As practical and grounded as this film is there were still some sciencey aspects that were glossed over like the gruelling sense of time in space as far as Mark and the evacuated crew are concerned. The handling of time was a little too casual and only really showed when Mark appeared gaunt and withered in the final act. The pacing in the final act waned mainly as the script tries to make some superfluous global accommodations.
The Martians saving grace remains the humour and light tone. Don’t take matters too seriously. I don’t know Scott to be a comic director and whilst he does his bit with his stunning visuals I feel like Goddard’s script is the real ace here filled with buoyant dialogue backed well by Damon’s upbeat performance. I should point out a fantastic geeky gag drawing from The Fellowship of the Ring and yes, Sean Bean featured in that scene – Golden!
If I had seen films like this and Apollo 13, among others, earlier in life I may have developed a proper interest in science and not bombed 90 percent of my science exams. In truth I’ve only written two science papers that mattered and I came through big in the clutch so no biggie.