Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: The Martian (the movie)

Back in October I talked about a book I absolutely loved.  You might have heard of it.  They made a movie from it starring Matt Damon.

I'm here to talk about it.

...that might be the easiest introduction I ever wrote.

For anyone who read my previous post, you might remember my using words that boiled down to "everybody should read this book."  I'm going with the exact same logic for this movie, "everybody should watch it."

That's...that's really all there is to it.  Easy intro, easy review.  My work here is d- okay, fine, I'll go into more detail.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who gets left behind on the surface of Mars after a massive storm separates him from the rest of the crew during an evacuation.  He has to struggle not only to survive but also to attempt to sort out a rescue plan with NASA, which has to sort out if they can save him and, if so, how.

The first part of that question is so ridiculous it's worth ignoring.  Of course they're going to save Mark Watney.  Hollywood isn't brave enough to give us a movie where a guy gets left behind somewhere and then dies before he can be rescued.  ...well, maybe they are, but it would need to have "based on the true story" somewhere and be based off discovering the guy's corpse somewhere surrounded by homemade tools that we think we know the purpose of.

The movie is formulaic, but it presents itself in such a way that you're interested in seeing how it moves through the formula in imaginative and new ways.  How does Mark eat?  Well, it involves figuring out how to grow potatoes on a planet that doesn't sustain life.  Who gets sent to rescue him?  Well, they cast Jessica Chastain as the mission commander of the crew Mark was part of, odds are we aren't going to just see her leave him behind and then never see her again.  How do they save him?  Well, that's a lot of the fun.

Instead of being dark and overly dramatic, The Martian is light and fun, and it has something I really appreciate about a well-made science fiction movie.  It doesn't glorify its own science.  This might sound weird, but I always feel weird when a movie tries to "show off" its science.  If you look at the technology of today and compare it to twenty years ago, imagine somebody from the 90's seeing a smart phone for the first time, or a flat television, or even a USB flash drive.  To them, the technology is amazing and unheard of.  To us, it's so common it's barely worth discussing any more.  Many people have them, they aren't the status symbols they used to be.

I like it when a movie does the same thing and gives the impression of "yeah, this is the future, we have futuristic technology, but everybody knows what it does so nobody's going to be really impressed by it any more."  Astronauts flying amazing star ships don't spend every minute looking around going "wow!"  Heck, the Millennium Falcon was one of the fastest star ships in that universe, and it was mostly held together with duct tape and determination.

The Martian doesn't wave its fancy future technology in front of the camera and expect the audience to go "ooh" and "ahh."  It doesn't make sure everybody takes the time to fully describe every piece of gear and what it can do.  It just expects us to figure out what Mark Watney's doing while he explains why he's doing it and moves along.  It doesn't talk over the audience or expect everybody to be a scientist, but it doesn't talk down to us by expecting us to accept interesting visuals over actually progressing the story.

For example, in one scene an astronaut on board a ship is in contact with his family at home.  His kids don't want to know about fancy computers or equipment or the ship itself, they want to see their father float in the air and grab droplets of water out of the air with his mouth.  It's a charming little scene that serves more to remind us that these are actual people instead of just stock characters in a fancy setting.

The cast is filled with both funny and serious actors, and many of the best moments involve two people simply communicating with each other (NASA people and Mark or two people within NASA itself).  People get tired, they fight, and then they get back to work because the nation is looking at them to save Mark.  But even then, you get the impression that the world might check in now and again to see how Mark's doing, but much like a lot of people when something bad happens somewhere, after the initial shock and news reports come in, their attention drifts elsewhere, only swinging back when new details emerge.

Matt Damon is engaging and entertaining as Mark Watney, and watching him tell his story to the cameras on his station (both to record everything for posterity and also to keep himself sane) helps us, the viewers, connect both with how serious his situation is but also make sure we don't get left behind when it comes to piecing together his rescue.  It takes the time to develop important issues like "what to do when your face plate on your helmet cracks" or "do you leave the heater on in your car to save fuel or do you drive in the cold?"

There are some genuinely entertaining moments, some heartfelt moments, and some intense scenes, but it all comes together to be one of the first movies about space that I can remember in a long time that was fun to watch and was willing to tell a classic story in a new setting instead of just hoping I'll sit back and accept a fancy attempt to show off how advanced CGI has become.

Everyone should watch it.

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