Innovative 'The Martian' explores outer space and the human mind

Sunday, October 4, 2015 - 6:26pm

NOSELL

20th Century Fox

 

The concept of space is terrifying. It’s a place completely hostile to human life, a place where we’re not meant to survive. To go into space, in several ways, is to defy the laws of the universe. Yet, for many, there’s an endless allure to visiting the vastness beyond our planet — the challenge to push mankind’s collective ingenuity, to test the boundaries of possibility and to achieve unmatched greatness continues to drive humanity forward. “The Martian” weaves together these two contrasting human needs, to endure and to explore, into a tale where survival depends on doing the unprecedented.

B+

“The Martian”

20th Century Fox

Rave and Quality 16

At the center is astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, “Interstellar”). A botanist for the Ares III mission on Mars, Watney is presumed dead and abandoned by his fellow crewmembers after a freak storm forces an evacuation. Alone, Watney must live on a foreign world where even the smallest mistake can lead to his death.

Directed by Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”), who makes one of his best efforts in years, “The Martian” bears resemblance to Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” In this similarity lies one of “The Martian” ’s biggest challenges: while the crisis of “Apollo 13” took place over a roughly six-day period, “The Martian” has the task of telling a narrative that extends over 500 days. To maintain the life-or-death tension over such a prolonged period of time, screenwriter Drew Goddard (“Cabin in the Woods”) splits the story into two parts, emphasizing two distinct questions — how Watney will survive and how he will get home.

The first question forms the beginning of the movie as Watney comes to grips with his situation. The weight of the movie is largely thrust on Damon as the isolated astronaut, and he’s more than up to the task. With a measured determination and smirking gallows humor, Damon brings lightness to Watney’s grim task while delivering the stress and doubt that crawl into the man’s psyche as he faces such insurmountable obstacles.

“The Martian” embraces ingenuity as Watney uses his limited resources to create a small potato farm. To explain Watney’s technical method, Scott interweaves narration and image. Using video journals, Damon narrates his character’s progress as he fertilizes his crops using human waste and creates water by burning hydrazine. This combination of voice and action makes these scenes fascinating, comprehensible and poignant.

While Watney’s situation focuses on survival, the idea of doing the extraordinary works its way in. At one point, Watney muses that everywhere he goes, he’s the first: to survive, he must paradoxically take calculated risks while stepping into the unknown, forcing these combative instincts to work in harmony.

As the film diverges from its protagonist, this reality becomes more apparent. Watney’s crewmates and the Earthbound NASA discover his survival and try to find a way to bring their man home. These storylines require a large ensemble cast, and Scott fills it with big-name talent. In lesser hands, these roles could be boring exposition dumps, but a distinct sense of humor and personality are brought forth by most of the performers. On the NASA front, mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”) and NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”) are strong points as men who have final say and weigh every choice with caution. However, there are some relatively thankless roles like Kristen Wiig’s (“Bridesmaids”) Mindy Park, who sometimes operates as little more than an audience stand-in.

The same goes for Watney’s astronaut companions. Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) is given the most to work with as guilt-ridden mission commander Melissa Lewis. While Michael Peña (“Ant-Man”) as pilot Rick Martinez develops a strong bond with Damon, even when they can only communicate through typed messages. The rest of the crew is good, but don’t have as many opportunities. “The Martian” never squanders its cast, but doesn’t always utilize its talent pool to full effect. At one point, Watney disappears to the background of the film in favor of concentrating on these storylines. While it’s interesting to see the challenges of putting together a rescue mission, the movie loses track of its emotional core for too long. A time jump makes the transition back to its protagonist slightly jarring.

However, despite these small struggles in maintaining focus, these interlocking storylines about rescuing Watney emphasize the need to extend beyond perceived limits as nothing comes easy and innovation is the only solution. It’s in these accomplishments of human resourcefulness that “The Martian” reveals why exploring the challenging reality of space is necessary. In facing the impossible, people can achieve more than they imagined and humanity, as a whole, is driven forward.