Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian: Out-of-this-world suspense

The Martian (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for profanity and brief nudity

By Derrick Bang

The most impressive aspect of 1995’s Apollo 13 lay in the tension that director Ron Howard generated, despite our certain awareness of the film’s outcome.

After all, history had spoken: Everybody knew that the astronauts got back safely. So, since Howard couldn’t concoct any suspense from the what, he concentrated on the how ... as in, how in the world did they survive?

Having realized that his only hope for survival involves the long-term rationing of his
supplies — along with figuring out some what of "creating" more food and water — Mark
(Matt Damon) begins a careful record of his days on Mars.
There’s something enticingly absorbing about watching engineers work a particularly difficult problem. In the realm of fiction, this is why caper thrillers and the Mission: Impossible franchise remain so popular: We love to see unworkable puzzles solved via triumphant bursts of ingenuity.

No surprise, then, that director Ridley Scott’s handling of The Martian is 141 minutes of nail-biting anxiety. Andy Weir’s 2011 novel (which has its own amazing history) is a crackerjack sci-fi thriller to begin with, and Scott and scripter Drew Goddard have pumped it up with an engaging blend of quiet agitation and gallows humor.

Best of all, this is smart science-fiction: a rigorously technical narrative that we rarely get from a Hollywood factory that equates the genre with the zap-gun antics of Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy (which, let’s face it, are — at best — equal parts sci-fi and fantasy). In the literary realm, Weir’s book is regarded as “hard” science of the sort written by Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Such stories are harder to bring to the big screen, because they don’t grant actors many opportunities for showboating or melodramatic interpersonal dynamics. But exceptions do exist — 2009’s Moon comes to mind — and if Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman can generate unease from plodding investigative journalism, then surely talented filmmakers can do the same with a clever sci-fi premise. Right?

Indeed. To give further credit where due, Scott has packed his film with an impressive cast, assigning strong actors to even the smallest of roles. Top marks go to star Matt Damon, who anchors most of the film with a compelling, deeply expressive, one-man performance on par with what we’ve seen from Tom Hanks (Cast Away) and Robert Redford (All Is Lost).

The story, then:

The time is an unspecified point in the near future, after NASA has successfully sent a six-person mission to Mars. The Ares 3 crew has established a good-sized working habitat within the Acidalia Planitia plain, and has spent some number of days collecting samples and conducting experiments.

An intense dust storm threatens their return spacecraft, forcing a rushed evacuation. During the blinding confusion, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is smashed away when the habitat’s antenna mount snaps off, and he’s immediately lost to sight. Worse yet, his suit’s telemetry goes offline and he fails to respond to radio communication, suggesting a fatal oxygen breach.

With great reluctance, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the crew — pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), cyber expert Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) and flight surgeon Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) — abandon the search and take off, to begin their 10-month journey home.

But when the subsequent Martian day dawns calm, Mark regains consciousness and discovers that his suit monitors have been damaged by a portion of antenna mount. He makes it back to the habitat, notes the absent Ares 3, and deduces what has happened. Worse still — as if anything could be worse than being left alone on Mars — the destroyed antenna has left him unable to communicate with Ares or NASA.

Back home, Mark’s apparent death is mourned by NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Ares 3 Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and NASA media relations director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig).

Mark, meanwhile, has decided to “work the problem” (the phrase beloved by engineers around the world). Oxygen won’t be a dilemma, as the habitat can generate that, but food and water definitely will be an issue ... particularly since his only likely means of survival depends on staying alive for four years, at which point the subsequent Ares 4 mission is scheduled to arrive on Mars.

At Schiaparelli crater, 2,000 miles away. Which, obviously, is another problem.

But panic and surrender aren’t in the cards, and so Mark gets to work ... as audience members indulge in the ultimate game of Armchair Survivor: What would we do?

Curl up and die, more likely than not, but Mark is made of sterner stuff ... which Damon doesn’t let us forget for a second. We get the benefit of his thoughts, hopes and fears via the video log he faithfully records each day, likely to be found (he realizes) only long after he has died. But although we see evidence of such fears in Damon’s eyes, he punches through each challenge with a blend of bravado and wry humor.

“I can beat this,” he insists, to nobody in particular, “because I’m a botanist!”

Back at NASA, low-level Mission Control observer Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) makes a startling late-night discovery, while viewing satellite images of the Ares III site: Things are moving. Well aware of the implications, she alerts everybody else; the changing images soon become essential viewing. But they’ve no way of communicating with Mark, and so all they can do is watch.

Sanders also makes the executive decision not to inform the Ares 3 crew, still months away from Earth, not wanting to compromise their psychological well-being. Mitch strongly disapproves of this move, but is overruled.

Back on Mars, still working problems, Mark has recognized the need for some sort of communications. Blessed with an excellent memory for space history, he recalls the existence of the Pathfinder probe, which landed on Mars back in 1997 and performed its functions superbly for three months, until (probably) its on-board battery failed. If the Pathfinder could be recharged, its signal could be used for two-way communication.

But even if the probe has remained intact all these years, it’s in the Ares Vallis: also a lengthy journey well beyond the capabilities of the Ares 3 rovers.

If you’re not hooked by now, you’re made of stone.

Damon holds our attention throughout, whether battling despair at each fresh setback, or grousing — half in amusement, half deadly serious — over the insufferable limitations of Lewis’ collection of disco music. Mark is an excellent observer of his own actions, and we readily accept that he’d constantly talk to himself, if only to relieve the oppressive stillness of his environment.

Daniels is authority personified as Sanders: the guy forced to make unpopular decisions based on public perception — which helps keep NASA funded — as opposed to emotional preference. Bean chafes well as the guy who feels closest to the returning Ares 3 crew; Wiig is ideal as the sort of mildly snarky PR wonk whose views, like Sanders’, are apt to be unpopular.

Benedict Wong is appropriately disheveled as JPL director Bruce Ng, whose team is tasked with a series of complex assignments, in an effort to anticipate and mimic what Mark might be doing (akin to the moment in Apollo 13, when Earth-bound engineers confront a pile of stuff dumped on a table, and are ordered to find a way to make the Command Module’s square oxygen filters work in the Lunar Module’s round receptacles).

Donald Glover, finally, is hilarious as Rich Purnell, a nerdy young “orbital dynamicist” whose messy, litter-strewn cubbyhole will be recognized by every recently graduated computer scientist lucky enough to get a job with the likes of Apple or Google. Glover’s go-to moment comes during a droll meeting with Sanders and the other top dogs, and it’s a scene destined to become famous when extracted on YouTube.

Production designer Arthur Max does marvelous things on both planets, particularly with the functional intricacies of Mark’s habitat. The Ares 3 interior is equally nifty, as is NASA’s massive Mission Control center, and Purnell’s aforementioned corner of clutter. (NASA’s behind-the-scenes cooperation is evident throughout.)

Visual effect supervisor Matt Sloan and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski do equally fine work, particularly with the massive Martian landscape that surrounds Mark’s activities. The 3D cinematography, although properly integrated during production, doesn’t add all that much ... although it does make the Ares 3 crew’s weightless activities way-cool on a level Stanley Kubrick couldn’t even have imagined, back in the days of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is a mostly subtle presence, as befits such a drama, and works on an almost subliminal level, frequently heightening our anxiety.

Everything is orchestrated to precision by Scott, by now a longtime veteran of big-screen science-fiction, whether horrific (Alien, Prometheus) or thoughtful (Blade Runner). He clearly respects the genre, which is much more than can be said about most filmmakers.

The Martian is solid filmmaking and suspenseful drama; it also functions as a sensational endorsement of both NASA and all engineering disciplines. And if that drives more young viewers to such careers, all the better.

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