The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Martian

Despite an excess of clunky prose and enough complicated technical jargon to make it feel like a science textbook, Andy Weir's novel The Martian became a national best-seller. The premise was sufficiently hooky to grab people's interest, even if it frequently bordered on being more academic than entertaining. Ridley Scott is the best thing to happen to the book. The director – who possesses some serious sci-fi credentials, thanks to Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus - has adapted it for the screen. Together with writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Scott keeps the spirit of the book alive, while simultaneously making it more accessible for people who don't care about scientific minutia. This is a terrific, intelligent, highly exciting movie.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist/astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. During a freak sandstorm, he's hit by a piece of debris and presumed dead by his fellow crew members, who escape the planet without him. Watney is not dead, however. Knowing it will take four years for a rescue mission to reach him, he decides to “science the shit” out of his situation. This entails finding a way to grow food, as well as letting NASA know that he's still alive and kicking. Once he does this, the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) and the mission's chief engineer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spearhead the effort to bring him home. When expedition leader Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) learns that she left a man behind, she resolves to go get him.

The Martian is faced with a tough task. The book leans very heavily on detailed explanations of the science Watney employs to survive and NASA uses to get him off Mars. It's essential to the story, and also what makes it kind of unique. However, that sort of thing is not especially conducive to generating thrills on the big screen. Scott and Goddard streamline the science so that it remains integral, without ever overwhelming the human element of the plot. They make sure that the viewer understands the general gist of what's happening; the hardcore specifics are not important on a cinematic level, and are therefore downplayed. This approach creates more immediate suspense, because the direness of the situation is heightened. Scott also does a magnificent job of visualizing Watney's predicament. On the page, Weir didn't spend a lot of time painting pictures of the environments (both interior and exterior) that the character inhabits. Being able to see the desolate Mars landscape and the cramped artificial habitat Watney roams around in goes a long way toward selling the idea that he's alone on a planet, millions of miles from home, with limited resources at his disposal.

Matt Damon was an inspired choice to play the beleaguered astronaut. Watney is something of a smart-ass, and Damon captures that quality brilliantly. He's also an actor who radiates intelligence, which makes him credible as a guy who only has his highly-advanced training to rely on. In most scenes, he has no one to act against. Nonetheless, Damon gives a full-blooded performance. He brings alive the survival instinct that usually follows abject fear. The supporting actors, meanwhile, take characters who were often a little thin in the novel and invest them with much-needed emotion. Daniels and Ejiofor convey the panic of a mission gone horribly wrong, while Chastain emphasizes the regret Lewis feels at having inadvertently abandoned a crew member.

The Martian is something of an ode to the science whizzes of the world. It suggests that knowledge, education, and experience are the most valuable things a person can rely on in a crisis. This quality marks it as appealingly different. Watney is not a Superman; he's a Smartman who uses what he knows to survive a situation that would, to most people, seem utterly hopeless. The “action” scenes stem from whether Watney can do what he needs to in a hostile, threatening environment. The enemy here is an entire planet, rather than a villain or a monster. Under Scott's direction, the “man vs. nature” idea is taken to an extreme, resulting in a fast-paced, consistently enthralling adventure.

The big finale stretches credibility a little, but by that point, you're so wrapped up in the story that it doesn't matter a whole lot. The Martian highlights the book's best qualities, tones down its worst, and adds its own style (which is accentuated by some effective, yet non-intrusive, 3D work). What a wonderful tribute to the glory of space exploration and scientific know-how this movie is.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Martian is rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 22 minutes.

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