Monday, October 5, 2015

In Theaters: THE MARTIAN (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Ridley Scott. Written by Drew Goddard. Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Nick Mohammed. (PG-13, 141 mins)

During a manned mission to Mars, a catastrophic storm suddenly appears and the crew of the Ares III is ordered to evacuate the landing site and abort the mission by Cmdr. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is blown away by a satellite antenna in a powerful gust of wind and when he doesn't respond and his vitals cease to register, he's presumed dead and Lewis and the crew--Martinez (Michael Pena), Johansson (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Vogel (Aksel Hennie)--begin the ten-month journey home. But Watney survived, though he's been impaled by an antenna and has no way to communicate to anyone at NASA that's he's been left behind. With enough pre-packaged meals for the entire crew to last 400 sols (a Martian sol being slightly longer than an Earth day) if he rations carefully, he must find a way to grow food to last four years until the next planned manned Mars expedition. Fortunately, Watney is a botanist and uses his wits and ingenuity ("I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this thing") to grow a small potato crop. Around the 54th sol after being left behind, Mars expedition director Dr. Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and graveyard-shift NASA analyst Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notice movement of structures on satellite imagery of the landing site, proof that Watney is alive. What follows is the thoroughly engrossing saga of Watney's struggle to survive when faced with one catastrophic obstacle after another, and the efforts of those at NASA to get him home.

Adapted by Drew Goddard (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS) from the novel by Andy Weir, THE MARTIAN is career highlight for director Ridley Scott (BLADE RUNNER, THELMA & LOUISE), an ageless workaholic who shows no signs of slowing down at 77 years of age (he just had EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS in theaters ten months ago). Unlike 79-year-old Woody Allen and 85-year-old Clint Eastwood, two legends who seem to crank out annual movies more out of obligation than anything, Scott still seems interested in challenging himself, whether it's venturing back to the ALIEN universe for PROMETHEUS or going way off on a tangent with the inspired and insane THE COUNSELOR. Scott's hardly been skidding, but THE MARTIAN is his best work in years, a masterful mix of drama, humor (there's a great running gag about Lewis' terrible taste in music), thrills, hard science, and escapist entertainment, operating at a level of quality you rarely see these days. It's rousing without being pandering, and filled with baited-breath intensity, and emotion and sentiment that's earned and not forced. It's a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie done right, with a terrific ensemble whose performances make a very human and universal story rather than simply "CAST AWAY in space." The world comes together in plausible ways to rally behind Watney and his safe return--the Chinese space program even sets its own ambitions aside to work with rival NASA by contributing a necessary booster that the Americans have yet to develop. There's a certain element of "Nobody gets left behind!" but it's not a jingoistic flag-waver. Watley's plight unites the planet.

Sure, that could've been some hokey, feel-good bullshit, and a man stranded alone on the red planet has been explored to some degree in the revered 1964 sci-fi classic ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, but Damon's performance, filled with raw emotion, self-deprecating humor, and a spirit of dogged persistence, is nicely juxtaposed with a large cast of characters. They all get moments in the spotlight (with the possible exception of Kristen Wiig, who isn't given much to do as NASA's media relations coordinator), from each of Watney's fellow astronauts to the brilliant scientific minds on the ground (Ejiofor's Mars mission director, Sean Bean as the launch director, Benedict Wong as a rocket designer, and Donald "Childish Gambino" Glover as an astrodynamicist), to Jeff Daniels as the bottom-line, very Jeff Daniels-ish NASA chairman, a character that other films would've made into an obligatory earthbound adversary but here, his blunt demeanor that occasionally comes off as insensitive is just a realistic reaction to the situation. THE MARTIAN is a triumph across the board, from its story to its performances to its astonishing visual effects, particularly in the tense, nerve-wracking climax. Most of the film was shot on sets constructed at a Hungarian studio, but the Mars exteriors were shot in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, looking appropriately desolate and otherworldly through the lens of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (working on his fourth straight Scott film), augmented by the appropriately otherworldly, Tangerine Dream-ish synth score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who also contributed to the soundscapes of Michael Mann's underrated BLACKHAT. THE MARTIAN is the most satisfying and thrilling time at the movies since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, and like the mad genius George Miller, the great Ridley Scott is essentially conducting a seminar on how it's done.

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