The Martian

I was thinking…

…how Ridley Scott films always seem to be exercises in nervous patience. You sit and you simply wait for something to go wrong.

And it always does.

Scott’s latest outing, The Martian, is no exception. Starring Matt Damon (Interstellar, The Monuments Men) in the titular role, The Martian opens innocently enough, on Mars, as the crew of the Ares III are going about their normal day, collecting samples and inspecting the spaceworthiness of their return vehicle.

Cue Ridley Scott Problem Number One.

As a storm comes rolling in, the team needs to abort their mission and make tracks as soon as they can. However, hit by a piece of debris and swept away in the wind, astronaut botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is left behind by the rest of the crew, who then embark on their ten month journey back to Earth.

Awakening the following day–bleeding and alone–Watney realizes he has only enough food and power meant to support a team of six for one month. He quickly gets to work, utilizing his training, knowledge and “scienc[ing] the s#@t out of” things to figure out how to survive long enough for the next Ares mission to come to Mars.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, a NASA engineer named Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor12 Years a Slave) realizes Watney is still alive, which then leads to a tremendous effort to bring him back.

Simple enough concept.

As it was the first thing of which I took note (no pun intended), the musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams provided the initial indication that Ridley Scott was back in his filmic birthplace: space. In less than one measure, the chilling aural clues of Scott’s 1979 Alien creep in. The rest of the soundtrack is peppered, rather heavily and somewhat unfortunately, with music from the 1970’s–mmmmostly disco. These sparkly polyester tunes are from a collection left behind by Ares III Commander Lewis, (Jessica ChastainInterstellar, Zero Dark Thirty), and it’s easy to understand why.

Wait, space and music from the 1970’s? That sounds eerily familiar.

A year ago, Guardians of the Galaxy followed the exploits of Peter Quill, who listened exclusively to 1970’s rock and pop on a mix tape made by his mother.

Hmmm. Could this repeated correlation be because the majority of the NASA moon missions took place in the 1970’s and the decade also saw the birth of the insanely successful science fiction films of Star Wars and Ridley Scott’s own Alien? Or could it be that most of The Martian‘s intended audience grew up in that era?

Who knows? I’m just spit-balling.

Visually, The Martian is filled with scenes of bleak beauty. Standing in for the desolation of Mars is the Jordanian landscape on our very real planet of Terra. But with the aid of digital Martian weather patterns, disbelief is effectively suspended for the duration of the film. Costume and sets are equally impressive throughout.

Where the film starts to show cracks in its otherwise impressive facade is in its pacing. Admittedly, as the story takes place over a period of nearly two years, it should be expected that the movie has an appropriately lengthy feel. It does a fine job of attempting to break up the monotony, as well; however, the sheer energy which permeates the first act fizzles out further in. As action-packed and dramatically tense as the above trailer feels, the actual film ekes out about 50-60 percent of that oomph.

There are also little Hollywood cliches, like Jeff Daniels’ head-of-NASA character saying, “…as long as nothing else goes wrong,” followed immediately by the explosive decompression of part of Mark Watney’s habitat.

The casting is also mis-distributed. Although Matt Damon does a fine job carrying the film, transmitting every bandwidth on the emotional spectrum, there are those who headline the film with him, such as comedian Kristin Wiig, whose roles are tangential at best and completely unnecessary at worst. Furthermore, actors like Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) are relegated to secondary roles.

Imperfections aside, The Martian is an engrossing tale, which succeeds in developing the all too vital sympathetic link between movie watcher and movie protagonist. And, perhaps more astounding, it manages to make the red planet about which humans have spun myriad tales over the millennia, into an attainable goal in the final frontier.

Ammo Dump rating:  8 out of 10 potatoes

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com or the “Rdio” app on your smart phone. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ALphaEXray to find out when I’ll be on the air.

The Martian
Rated PG-13
Run time: 141 minutes

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