Monday, May 21, 2018

Cinestudio preview: Matt Damon in “The Martian”

TRIP SLAYMAKER ’18
A&E EDITOR

Space really is the final frontier. It’s cold, lifeless, and big. And if you happen to live in any movie about space, good luck. You’re going to need it, because things usually don’t go too well for the likes of you.

Ridley Scott has been to the stars before in his bloodcurdling 1979 classic “Alien,” and in the prequels, sequels, and parallel movies that he made as follow-ups. But it seems that lately, Scott has felt the urge to work more within the realm of plausibility. In “The Martian,” Matt Damon is pitted not against a massive drooling space creature but the expanse of the void itself. Abandoned on Mars, Damon’s astronaut /physicist/botanist/handsome guy character Mark Watney is accidentally left for dead on the red planet. As such, he must begin to build a sustainable life there.

And so, jointed between an idealized and curiously well-funded NASA headquarters and the beautiful and deadly landscape of Mars, “The Martian” pits Watney and the team of scientists tasked with rescuing him against seemingly impossible problems, often in quick succession. That’s the way the plot moves—every scene is a new task for Watney, a new opportunity for him to scrawl numeric equations on a wall in a fit of genius or an opportunity to discover some new way to make food for himself in the bunker that once housed his Astronaut coworkers. You get the picture—“The Martian,” by all accounts, has taken a kind of monastic oath to use “real science” to drive its plot. Astronaut Watney’s story is told episodically, not just to highlight his science-fair style survival tactics, but also because the entire film is derived from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, which was originally published online in a serial format. Each installment would chronicle Watney’s newest problem and how he would “Macgyver” his way into solving it.

It makes for exciting viewing, and Damon, who holds most of the dramatic weight of the film, does quite well. That said, he has relatively few exchanges with anyone else during his time on Mars—most of his lines are delivered into his computer as he chronicles his day to day activities in the “Hab,” which is short for habitat, I imagine.

But Matt Damon is not alone. Unlike the isolation and empty feeling of space in 2013’s “Gravity,” which will inevitably draw comparison to this movie, “The Martian” works hard to cultivate a sense of community over the great distance. The Team at NASA is gigantic and each member of that team is a character. Big names drift past, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice some interesting casting choices, namely SNL alum Kristen Wiig in a quiet role, and comedy actor turned rap deity Donald Glover as a geeky student scientist.

As the world watches, Mark Watney struggles to overcome the inhospitable nature of his new temporary home. We, the audience, are never really in doubt about his fate, though. Ridley Scott keeps a light hearted tone throughout, and the soundtrack of classics and disco music (naturally incomplete without a certain David Bowie number) reassures us of his safety. Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but trust me—it isn’t.

On the other hand, this fun laden attitude doesn’t leave much room for emotion. If Watney is panicking, he rarely shows it, and the NASA team, headed by a characteristically self-important Jeff Daniels, behaves similarly. This is forgivable, though. It only means that “The Martian” really knows what it wants to be, and it’s okay with ditching that emotional baggage to make room for adventure and theory.

“The Martian” is begging for scientists like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye to pick it apart after the fact and for them to proclaim it flawlessly accurate. I’ve no doubt that it is, but that was never by wheelhouse anyway. If you’re a science lover, you’ll find yourself in a dreamland of wonderful space travel reality. Especially wonderful is the half Kubrick, half reality inspired space ship used by the more fortunate astronauts to travel within, even when their friend Dr. Watney languishes millions of miles behind them.

“The Martian” isn’t particularly taxing viewing, and as such, it isn’t particularly enlightening either. But I enjoyed its sense of basic entertainment value. It is not overambitious, and with the entire world of space travel available to toy with and explore, and the effects and research to back them up, that’s a miracle. Too much of this ambitious storytelling could have stopped a movie like this in its tracks and weighed it down past the point of no return. Congratulations to Ridley Scott for not giving in to that temptation.

“The Martian” plays at Cinestudio Dec. 11 and 12.

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