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Film Review: The Martian

A Slow-moving but informative tale of beleaguered astronaut on Mars is undermined by lack of suspense back on earth.

After taking in the most entertaining Gravity in 2013, I was looking forward to comparing it with The Martian, which is similar in theme. Both Matt Damon and Sandra Bullock play astronauts, who as a result of a disaster, are forced to save themselves from certain death in the vast expanse of outer space. Gravity, unlike the bloated Martian, has a more than workmanlike plot that occurs in real time—the ticking clock forces us to view Dr. Ryan Stone as she battles one setback after another, placing the viewer on the edge of one’s seat throughout the heart-pounding narrative.

The Martian, in contrast, chronicles Mark Watney as he devises various stratagems for survival over a much longer period of time. Thus by the very nature of this most different, much slower-moving tale (based on a novel and not on an original screenplay, as is the case with Gravity), The Martian, is only mildly entertaining, more for its “educational platform” than a scenario involving death-defying life-and-death maneuvers.

Thus the first third of The Martian manages to be fairly compelling as we follow Watney in his initial stab at survival after the Martian storm separates him from his Ares III comrades and strands him on the virtually barren red planet, with no expectation of rescue for another four years based on NASA’s projected schedule.

Watney, brilliant botanist scientist that he is, devises a way to create a water supply from human waste and grow potatoes in a makeshift greenhouse. As the first half of Act 2 slugs along, there’s more enormously clever stuff in store as Watney extends the battery life of his Rover and journeys for days, eventually locating an early Pathfinder probe buried in the sand. Watney reconfigures the Pathfinder which enables him to communicate with NASA. One of the film’s thrilling moments occurs when mission control realizes Watney is still alive and eventually devises a way to communicate with him.

Unfortunately, The Martian loses steam in the second half, after the focus shifts from Watney to NASA in their attempt to rescue him. We see this in high relief at the midpoint when a breach in the crew’s Hab’s airlock ruins Watney’s potato crop and NASA is forced to send an unmanned probe full of supplies which blows up upon liftoff. This might sound exciting but it takes so much time for everyone on the ground to make this happen that the launch (reminiscent of the Challenger disasters), proves anti-climactic.

There’s a brief aside involving an offer from the China National Space Administration to send one of their secret probes to resupply Watney. The inclusion of a Chinese benevolent offer undoubtedly was inserted by the film’s scenarists to perhaps promote better Chinese-American relations, but in reality it does little to heighten the suspense surrounding Watney. Ultimately the Chinese probe proves to be a time waster for both viewer and plot: its lack of practicality becomes obvious when it’s postulated there’s no way to control the speed of the ship when it enters the Martian atmosphere.

The Martian almost grinds to a complete halt before the big climax when a coterie of geeks and NASA personnel are intent on explaining how the story ends before it actually does. A geeky astrodynamicist, Purnell, comes up with the idea of a “slingshot trajectory” which will lengthen the Hermes mission by first hooking up with the Chinese resupply ship and then making a beeline back to Mars where they’ll somehow “catch” Watney in a module stripped of its top portion, covered only by a tarp. The tension of Watney’s quest for survival is replaced by a tale of NASA infighting—the chief honcho nixes the idea of a Hermes reboot, but his assistant emails Purnell’s risky maneuver to the crew who of course go against orders and decide to save Watney anyway. The big climax is once again outlined before it happens by the Aeres captain, who illustrates to the crew what’s supposed to happen utilizing a set of salt and pepper shakers!

Even though we finally get back to Watney, his trip in the reconfigured rover for a rendezvous with his getaway rocket is again somewhat anti-climactic, replete with clichéd orchestral music and wide shots highlighting the aforementioned barren Martian landscape.

Finally Watney’s rescue is exciting enough, but one cannot help but feel that we should have gotten to it a lot sooner (whatever happened to the old cinematic axiom, show don’t tell?). One also can’t help but feel that Damon’s successful rescue is quite reminiscent of Bullock’s maneuvers in Gravity. But Bullock’s turn in outer space just seems to be a lot more exciting and well choreographed, than Damon’s!

The Martian also suffers from a lack of multi-dimensionality in its characters. No one except Damon really stands out. Damon, on the other hand, shines–particularly in his scenes where he details his machinations on the Red Planet in his trusty video diary. Those videos make Damon’s Watney come alive and saves the film from the second half chronicle of mediocre doings on earth.

The Martian is by no means a terribly bad film, and I understand that director Scott was determined to create some kind of paean to man’s ingenuity and self-survival. Nonetheless, the unabashed jingoism in his misplaced salute to NASA and the US space program in general, leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. With all the poverty and suffering going on in the world today, isn’t the space program, with its hopeless quest to find extraterrestrial life in the universe, nothing more than a terribly misguided canard? Ridley is one of those guys who still believes in “The Idea of Progress,” that emerged from the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Better to have consulted the Biblical admonition found in Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Lewis Papier