Monday, October 5, 2015

The Martian

Mildly inspirational and uplifting, Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015)will please most audiences.  Unfortunately, the film is pedestrian and a bit tedious -- at 2 hours and 25 minutes, it feels about a half-hour too long.  The movie merges Robinson Crusoe with a "Houston we have a problem" space rescue film on the order of Apollo 13.  And that's the essential problem:  we've seen this material before, know how it ends, and, so, the picture lacks any real suspense.  The only question left for the audience is how many complications can be thrown in the way of our enterprising hero and the army of NASA scientists trying to rescue him. 

The Martian's premise is simple enough.  During a brutal sandstorm on Mars, the hero, played by the appealing Matt Damon, gets separated from his companions.  Struck by piece of wind-blown debris, Damon's life support system is breached, apparently, sending a message of distress to the rest of the crew.  For reasons that are not explained, everyone else flees the planet with the utmost haste -- this is the first of many events in the film that seem contrived:  what is there about this specific storm that forces everyone to depart from Mars?  Damon, of course, is only stunned and after a grisly sequence involving a little self-surgery, sets about to solve the problem of living on the inhospitable surface of the Red Planet.  As it happens, Damon has a more or less endless supply of hardware, courtesy of previous expeditions to Mars, and so, whenever he needs something, he can find it -- the  Red Planet is like a hardware store with its goods buried in pinkish sand.  Damon, who plays a botanist, grows potatoes in his own excrement and awaits rescue -- something that will take about two-and-a-half years.  Meanwhile, NASA discovers his plight, figures out an ingenious way to communicate with the castaway, and, then, begins efforts to rescue him.  These efforts involve a collaboration with the Chinese and a genius mathematician, similar to one of the kids in the hit sit-com, The Big Bang -- in fact, the boy-genius is played by the Black student who used to be a feature on Community College.  Back on Earth, there are a several interesting characters, but they are minor and we don't get to know them very well.  For instance, the genius African-American mathematician shows up about half-way through the movie, figures out a trajectory to rescue Damon -- it's the old gravitational slingshot around the earth technique -- and, then, vanishes from the film.  Jeff Daniels plays the malevolent suit running NASA -- he's a villain, but his villainy is muted and remote and, most disturbingly, everyone at the Agency is complicit in following his orders.  (This is an unintended implication of the film's scenario that militates against the heroic ingenuity otherwise celebrated.)  Kristin Wig gets to show some cleavage and emote in reaction shots to the various crises that ensue.  Cliché is layered upon cliché, particularly in the NASA control center scenes:  bosses shout gruffly "Make it happen!" and when a time-table of six months is proposed, the leader demands:  "Do it in three months!"  There are lots of scenes of people staring at computer screens, innumerable reaction shots showing despair and anguish when setbacks occur, and acres of aphoristic, clipped dialogue about the hazards of space exploration.  At the climax, the people of the world gather en masse to cheer Matt Damon's rescue -- we see shots of Times Square, Beijing, and London's Trafalgar Square.  (Why not a shot of Syrians in a refugee camp enjoying the spectacle or people in the Congo watching on TV?)  The film has many beautiful images of Martian landscapes but mostly seems implausible.  It's like the story of the economists who fell in a deep pit and studying their options said, "Let's assume a ladder," -- except in this film, no sooner is the ladder assumed than it materializes.  Curiously, the film gives no sense of the horrifying isolation of its principal character -- Damon is cheerful, steadfast, as ingenious as a Nigerian shade-tree mechanic fixing an old Westphalia VW bus.  He never hallucinates, nor does he really despair.  The film is resolutely anti-poetic, all nuts and bolts, and the significance of the hero's plight, or the world's commiseration with him (presumably in the midst of much greater calamities) is cheerfully ignored.  The space-ships are convincing and there are nice shots of people in zero-G floating around and the dust devils that sometimes plague the menacing red buttes and canyons of Mars are impressive, but there's nothing here you haven't seen a half-dozen times before and, in fact, more effectively dramatized.  (Perhaps, the one exception is the climax, a sort of pas de deux between a heroic lady astronaut and Damon -- she has to space-walk to catch the Martian as he shoots by.  Before departing the Red Planet, Damon has eaten a heaping plate of freeze-dried pinto beans and he uses intestinal gas to create fart-jets that drive him into the arms of the lady-astronaut.)

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