October 8, 2015

The Martian: Rocket Science as Comedy

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Fall movie season is officially here, which means that even after a summer of particularly good popcorn fare, Hollywood starts craving some respect and puts out all its prestige films. Generally, around this weekend there is one high-quality film released by a major studio and helmed by a heavyweight director. I’m pleased to report that The Martian is this year’s movie. Directed by Ridley Scott and running two and a half never-boring hours, it is a pleasurable and sometimes awe-inspiring ride. It contains some moments of genuine amazement, many that are laugh-out loud funny, and fits neatly into the tradition of recent space-set blockbusters by big-name directors like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.

The film plays like a comedic fantasy version of Apollo 13 with its good-natured characters, not a one of them evil or out for sabotage, striving to bring home a lone marooned space explorer on cinema’s favorite alternative planet. Mars has seen the likes of many other bad, cheesy films dealing with astronautical exploration, but this one does so with a wink and a smile. It bears repeating that this is, yes indeed, a comedic film, an epic comedy-drama set lightyears away. It’s also a tribute to the science and the ingenuity of NASA’s glory days, a celebration of the innovation and engineering prowess of humankind so clearly defined during the space race.

Scott is a science fiction maestro, with such classics as Blade Runner, Alien, and the underrated Prometheus to his name, and when he works with a smart script, the writing grounds all his kinetic visuals in performance and character. Such is the case with this screenplay by Drew Goddard, adapted from the bestselling novel by Andy Weir. The book has been described as ‘Hatchet in space’ and is first and foremost, a character study. The film wisely takes this cue and relies on an exceptional cast and an attuned focus to the central performance from leading player Matt Damon, to do much of the heavy dramatic lifting. When Scott’s techno-bravura is layered on top, the result is thrilling.

Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is captaining a manned mission to Mars and her crew includes Kate Mara, Michael Pena and Damon, playing our hero, Mark Watney. A cataclysmic space storm interrupts their work, forcing them to take refuge and then abort in their shuttle capsule. All of them make it aboard the ship except for Watney, who is impaled by debris and, when Lewis is forced to make a him-or-all-of-us decision, left for dead. Back at base, Jeff Daniels — head of NASA — reports that Watney was killed. But wait! He’s still alive. On the martian surface, Scott shows us Watney recuperating from his grisly injury, making his way to the mission shelter and deciding not to throw in the towel—“I’m not going to die here.” Then he makes a video message to send back to base: “I’m alive. …Surprise!”

The rest of the film concerns the competing efforts of the astronauts still on their months-long journey back to Earth and the NASA engineers down in Washington grappling with the mathematics of trying to bring Watney back home. The well-intentioned bureaucrats include Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and even Kristen Wiig. Donald Glover has a scene-stealing role as a nerdy twenty-something scientist who has a eureka moment and codenames a consequent top-secret cabinet gathering after the Council of Elrond from Lord of the Rings, which Bean figured prominently in. Meanwhile, worlds away, Watney struggles to grow enough food on a planet

with hopelessly infertile soil, to survive the four year timespan that will elapse before another manned mission is able to reach him. Many of the most enjoyable moments come from watching Watney’s incremental progress as the first of his potato plants begin to sprout, as he first makes contact with the folks at NASA using a complex system of hieroglyphics, and when he finds out that NASA has not informed his fellow crew members that he’s alive. (That scene involves a few humorous cover-ups of Watney’s more than justifiable F-bombs).

Growing years’ worth of food on a planet where nothing grows may seem a Sisyphean task, but it’s worth attempting when your coworkers back on Earth are moving mountains to keep you alive, and the Chinese space program has even been inspired to join the battle. It’s a majorly hostile, unforgiving environment, but optimism, hope and humor can provide the fuel needed to keep going. Damon’s performance reflects this—it’s his best one in years, by the way, probably since he dropped Mr. Bourne—and Watney remains a compelling character because of his ability to make light of the most disheartening situations imaginable. Cruising around in a surface rover about to run out of fuel and leave him stranded, he claims he’s got larger problems: Commander Lewis’ pre-packed music for the mission includes nothing but 80s disco hits. In this way, what finally brings The Martian home is its theme of humanity and perseverance in the face of almost comically insurmountable odds.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].