Movie Review: The Martian (2015)
Shit is big in “The Martian.”
We first see the crew of Ares III, a manned mission to Mars, giving each other shit as they do their various tasks just before a massive storm hits, forcing them to abandon the planet.
But, oops, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is clubbed by a kind of satellite dish, assumed dead, and left behind. Except he’s not dead. He’s the last man on Mars, our titular Martian, and with the remaining equipment and diminishing resources he has to figure out a way to grow food on a planet that doesn’t grow anything. As he says, “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”
Which he does. By using his own shit.
So three shits: two figurative, one literal.
Let me add another: I enjoyed the shit out of it.
The needs of the many
I got echoes of other movies watching this one. Let’s start with the obvious:
- For much of the movie, there’s just one man on the stage, and by the end he’s a thin, ragged, bearded figure—like Tom Hanks in “Castaway.”
Then the Matt Damon-specific echoes:
- Damon is left alone on a planet, as in “Interstellar.”
- A team risks everything to bring Damon back alive, as in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Director Ridley Scott added this echo as an homage to a great film and filmmaker:
- Ares III crewmember Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara) runs on a treadmill as a portion of the ship revolves in space, reminding anyone who’s seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” of Gary Lockwood seemingly running sideways (and uspide down) around his ship.
Here’s an intellectual echo:
- The second and third “Star Trek” movies raise the question of when you risk many to save one. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is not only Mr. Spock’s line but his philosophy, his logic, but it gets turned on its head when the U.S.S. Enterprise risks everything to save, or resurrect, him. “The Martian,” which never really raises the question, actually has a better answer for it: In risking a few to save the one they unite the all; they unite the world.
But the movie that echoes most strongly here is Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” Once more, a NASA mission goes awry and once more a team of scientists and technicians back on Earth work around the clock to figure out how to fix it and bring the men, or man, back. In doing this, they unite the world.
As a result, “The Martian” is both futuristic and nostalgic. It’s about a mission to Mars in the 2030s but it reminds us of when we all had a common purpose in the 1960s; when we all gathered in big squares (Times, Trafalgar) to watch how space missions turned out, if we ever even did that. To be honest, when we got the huge crowds in Times Square, the cynic in me thought, “Really? We’re not all watching it on our smartphones? We’re not just watching it in the air as in ‘Minority Report’? We’re physically united?” But the sentimentalist in me still teared up.
I’ve tried to figure out why I liked “The Martian.” I think it’s the “Apollo 13” thing—which is an underrated movie, by the way. It’s that combination of smarts and teamwork and humanity. Most movies are about a hero, who’s strong, and who goes it alone even if he has to save something that’s not him: a town or a building; a family or a woman. Intelligence? Eh. Science? The science he needs is what makes a gun go boom. Questions? The only question he wants answered is this one: Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya? Punk?
This is not that. The landscapes are beautiful and desolate, the first green shoot poking through Watley’s makeshift greenhouse is beautiful and delicate, the movie’s pace is my pace. It’s well-acted. Damon rocks. Watley is often ahead of us rather than behind us. He's smarter than we are.
Yes, certain characters are given short shrift. Didn’t we need more of the rest of the Ares III crew? Didn’t you want to see more of Chiwetel Ejiofor? And what exactly is Kristen Wiig doing here? With so many interesting characters, it almost feels like it should be a miniseries rather than a movie.
Which is a compliment. Its 140-minute runtime zips. When was the last time I wanted more after a two-and-a-half hour film?