The Martian is… Down to Earth (2015)

Talk about “Castaway” in Space.

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Our leading average Joe may possess an amount of intellect above the casual audience, but this fellow is a pleasant guy you could grab a beer with. Stranded on Mars, our hero has to survive on dwindling potatoes, a camera, and humor. And a little bit of salvaged Disco albums, which he abhors, but that would do, he jokes to his video log camera.

Based on the surprise-hit debut novel by Andy Weir, “The Martin” utilities ingenuity and resourceful for a sci-fic survival story. Director Ridley Scott plays this movie as refreshingly down-to-Earth… or Mars, should I say.

The film opens up on a futuristic time setting where NASA astronauts can explore Mars as they explored the Moon, except there’s a bit of laboratory residence established there.

Six astronauts are stationed there, but the arrival of a Mars storm forces them to rush to an emergency evacuation. As they venture from their laboratory safe base to the rocket, one astronaut Mark (Matt Damon) gets struck back by debris and swept into the oblivion of the storm. The mission Commander (Jessica Chastain) is talked quickly into leaving him behind. It wouldn’t be likely he would survive suffocation and a quick rescue would be futile. “My friend is dead and I don’t want my commander to die,” one of them reasons. The ideal “no man left behind” policy might doom the entire crew. In the chaotic urgency and uncertainty of a fatal situation, this was the best decision, and the film reiterates that no one is at fault, though reactive emotions of guilty helplessness are human reactions.

As viewers of the trailers and advertisements know, Mark survived, miraculously, stabbed by an antenna that sealed his suit oxygen-breach. The scene of his recovery is shown in excruciating detail. The camera refuses to look away when he uses tools to pry out metal from his blood-gushing wound and staple it shut.

Like in Tom Hanks “Castaway,” Mark’s isolation leads him to get a coconut pal, his Mr. Wilson, through a video camera for expository dialogue, which he hopes could be discovered after his probable death, pretending that he can be heard or will be heard posthumously. I should quip that the utilization of the camera could make for a unique found footage film of its own, but thankfully not. Just flirting with an idea.

With his botany “powers,” he finds ingenious ways to plant potatoes and also cracks jokes to get through the Mars days. He’s doing what he loved at least, he knows. Although he verbally decides he isn’t going the die on Mars, he does hold the realistic notion that death is a strong possibility. The relentless optimism is tempered by reality of “anything can go wrong.”

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The hints of his survival is found by NASA and slowly but surely communication could be achieved between the distance, even if it’s mostly text-based. The revelation of his survival to his crews is overdue and they are devastated they can’t turn back just as easily to retrieve him.

A touch of Hollywooding science is necessary. A scientific geek could rightfully bemoan the blatant scientific inaccuracy of the existence of violent duststorms on Mars, only admittedly added to create a unpredictable force of nature, according to the author. But it works convincingly as the threatening Murphy’s Law to put our protagonist, as every novice screenwriter have learned, “through Hell.”

Like in the low-profile film “Primer,” “The Martian” is bursting with technical jargon and a causal viewer can’t catch every instructions and terminology, but understand as the scenarios unfold. He has to work with a still photo camera and draw messages to grab NASA’s attention.

Once Mark manages to contact NASA on Earth, the occasion is joyful but hope is exercised with caution. The NASA executive (Jeff Daniels) is too risk adverse. Some might call him the closest to an antagonist, but he’s played as a well-intended obstructor, someone who wants to balance pragmatics of publicity (he knows NASA future progress will be stifled if the public thinks poorly of them) and the realistic chances of saving one life and risking others lives. Mitch (Sean Bean), the mission director, and Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor)  sometimes have to work outside of orders to help out.

Collaboration is celebrated by the intricate web of everyone’s specialized skills, from the mission directors to the eccentric astrodynamicist (played by Donald Glover). Inspiringly enough, the film averts the myopic “America Saves the Day” trope and has a China company contribute to the mission.

The dialogue refreshingly takes pauses to contemplate aloud the stakes and gives the characters plausible agency over their actions. When the five crewmembers all decide on rescuing Mark, Director Ridley and the Drew Goddard screenplay averts the “immediate unanimous vote” and has the characters bullet-point the stakes, both wide (the possibly of failure and everyone dying) and personal (they have to delay going home to their families). It involves mutiny against orders and perfect timing. Even if “yes” is the best answer, characters are allowed to hesitate before volunteering for the right decision.

Such is the communication barrier so distant between Earth and Mars that they are not sure what exact emotions being relayed. Near the end, the NASA sends Mark an order and Mark replies through the computer, “You have got to be f—ing kidding.” They discuss whether he means it in a seriously distressed manner or is good-naturedly joking. This best defines the film’s veering between uplifting humorous optimism and the dark reality. In addition, it shows how much technology can bridge long distances beyond Earth. Literally, Mark’s humor is transcendent across advices so that his crew and Earth can hear.

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MILD SPOILERS BELOW

It’s for the best that the film does not opt for the downer ending route. The characters worked too hard to undo the progress and the collaboration pays off. The “where are they now” shots remind us that the progress of life goes on in Earth and space amid setbacks. Man indeed can win against nature.

This isn’t a sci-fic survival story about beating the odds, but working with and outwitting the odds.

Verdict: A

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