Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Martian

***1/2 out of ****

Through four decades of filmmaking, Ridley Scott has never lost his sense of visual richness, but more often than not, his films suffer due to collaborating with screenwriters who lack imagination or the sense that they're writing for a guy who tends to put atmosphere first and human psychology as an afterthought. His biblical epic, Exodus: Gods and Kings was creative, but at times laughable and the disappointment felt from the gorgeously produced, yet pitifully written return to epic science-fiction (a genre he seriously escalated at the beginning of his career), through Prometheus, still feels fresh. 

It is very fortunate that Scott chose this time to work from a respected novel, The Martian, by Andy Weir adapted into a screenplay by Drew Goddard, who made the inventive comic twist on the horror genre that was Cabin in the Woods - and recently launched the very strong Netflix series, Daredevil.

The story follows an astronaut (Matt Damon) left behind by his crew on Mars when it is assumed that he perished in a deadly storm during evacuation. It is set in the future, but not far enough to make use of unspoken futuristic breakthroughs for plot convenience. Just about every technological aspect of the film deals within the limitations of what we know we can do.

The astronaut (a botanist), has to find solutions to his limited food and life support, while looking for a way to make his survival known to NASA on Earth. When NASA, which is just in the infancy stage of Mars exploration, learns he is alive, they have to make tough decisions. His crew still has months before their ship can complete its return to Earth, and no one on Earth has interplanetary launch shuttles just sitting around.

Jeff Daniels plays the director of NASA, while other members of the missions ground control are played by Kristen Wiig (not a comic role), Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a fresh-faced young actress named Mackenzie Davis. Donald Glover also pops in as an unwelcome eccentric consultant (comic role) who may have a brilliant plan. 

The shuttle crew is led by Jessica Chastain, with Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, and Michael Peña -because you always need some comic relief actor to tell his fellow scientists to "speak English" when they exercise the natural vocabulary of scientists.

What's refreshing about Scott's choice to give peril-in-space another go, is the light-hearted approach this time. A film that contains the morbid idea of a man marooned on a lifeless planet would normally be accompanied by Scott's signature serious tone. 

For anyone who saw Christopher Nolan's Interstellar last year, it was generally agreed between those who liked it and those who didn't, that Damon's role was a counterproductive distraction to the film's story. How strange it is that shortly after that film, he's accepted the role of an astronaut in similar survival circumstances. Jessica Chastain's participation seems to have a similar effect. The Martian feels like an energetic and optimistic apology from artists and a major Hollywood studio for draining all the fun and optimism out of big movies in recent years.

The special effects and cinematography are just as beautiful as what Prometheus managed to accomplish, but this time, we have a rational problem-solving character to root for, as opposed to the immature unprofessional idiots who caused problems in Prometh- You know, I'll stop talking about that movie and maybe Scott will stop talking about its sequel.

This is a beautiful and smart film that doesn't feel it's two-hour and twenty-minute length thanks to good choices. Damon providing exposition with a lively video diary reminded me of what made Danny Boyle's 127 Hours work. A science fiction film that works with limitations instead of magic solutions also keeps us invested with the relatable high stakes that make us think of real-world problems that need to be solved by strong thinkers. 

There are only a few less-desirable parts that condescend the audience and I was a little distracted that a film so hellbent on being scientifically accurate used sound in outer space during one of its later sequences, even though films like Gravity, and even Serenity seemed to be part of a movement to work without it (keep it in Star Wars, though!).

Along with Harry Gregson Williams' nice score, the movie makes an endearingly cheesy choice to have a seventies disco soundtrack. Not kidding. Not as inventive as Starlord's Awesome Mix cassette, but I dug it.

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