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Movie Review of the Week – “The Martian”

Movie Review of the Week – “The Martian”
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BY ALISON BAILES

Recent findings of water on Mars may be thrilling for NASA scientists but have come too late for astronaut Mark Watley (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on a dusty planet with a serious hydration problem in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi survival thriller “The Martian”.  Working from Andy Weir’s hugely popular, self-published “geeky” novel, Scott adds to a growing pantheon of survivalist cinema. Replace Watney’s space suit with rags (“Cast Away”) or jaunty boating sweaters (“All is Lost”) or er… a space suit (“Gravity”) and we have the bones of a well-tested formula onto which a gripping, white-knuckle human story can be crafted.

That’s not to say that “The Martian” is reductive or redundant. It manages to exist well within genre parameters, while also blasting through them with ingenuity and some well-placed comedy. A lot of the humor comes from the character of Watney, an unflappable mechanical engineer/botanist who’s on Mars to collect rock samples. Luckily he’s trained in the two areas that will save his life: fixing things and growing plants.

As played by Damon, Watney is excessively pragmatic with a fine gallows humor that serves him well as things go from bad to worse. His fellow astronauts have abandoned the planet following a fierce storm. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) reluctantly takes off believing Watney to be dead and as the remaining five astronauts make their year-long voyage home, they are initially unaware of having left a comrade behind.  Eventually mission control sees signs via satellite of Watney’s presence and elaborate, time-consuming and costly methods are put in place to BRING HIM HOME (so says the poster).

Most of Weir’s novel is Watney’s log as he calmly attacks the problems of surviving with no air and no water and very little food. The film has Damon address his thoughts to a video cam….a device that could have been risky, but ends up entertaining due to Damon’s engaging performance. Watney may cavalierly dismiss his dire situation, but Damon lets us see the intelligence and drive behind the brash surface. When he eventually breaks down, it is all the more effective for his restraint the rest of the time.

As well as Jessica Chastain, Damon’s cast mates include Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan on board the Hermes space-ship and Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean down in Houston puzzling out the intricate details of how to keep Watney alive. Whereas the book gets bogged down in the minutiae (how many calories to eat to maintain minimum nutritional demands etc), on film it’s all desperately exciting. With the spectacular scenery of the red planet behind him, every step Watney takes looks death-defying and/or deathly dangerous. Watching in 3D adds depths to the vistas and the expanses of inky space.

It’s probably not a surprise how it all turns out, although Scott sees it necessary to tack on an annoying epilogue back on earth. Up until that point, “The Martian” is breathtaking, hugely absorbing and edge-of-your-seat thrilling.

 

 

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