The Martian (20th Century Fox, PG-13)

The Martian 75This is the type of film that reminds you why formulaic movies with big budgets, big stars, and helmed by a big director exist.

  

 

The Martian 500

There’s a tendency among lazy, stupid moviegoers to compare a new movie to movies that seem vaguely like it that came out in recent memory. (A particularly glaring memory of mine has a bonehead who worked at Blockbuster in the late 90s trying to convince me that Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was a rip-off of Saving Private Ryan, which had been released earlier that year.) I see this habit from both people who see few to no movies and people who see a lot of movies. And while I don’t like it, if I’m being honest, I do it myself a lot of the time. Hell, I’m about to: The new Ridley Scott film The Martian feels like a lot of other movies that have been coming out lately—Interstellar, 127 Hours, Cast Away, and, most especially, Gravity.

But, The Martian wins. As in, while it bears some similarities to the above list of movies, it’s very likely the best of the bunch—better characters; smarter and more compelling plot (though still perfectly accessible for a mainstream audience); better, non-showy, unpretentious special effects. To specifically pick on Gravity, I was bugged by that movie’s script basically being like “This bad thing happened… And then THIS bad thing happened! …And then ANOTHER bad thing happened!” ad infinitum. By comparison, The Martian’s narrative is much more centered, unified, and logical, and I like star Matt Damon a hell of a lot more than I like Sandra Bullock besides.

That familiar-seeming premise of The Martian’s is this: A NASA crew, on Mars doing research, has to leave in a hurry due to a nasty storm, and in the process of the storm hitting and the crew departing one of the crew members, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is lost and presumed dead. As it turns out, Watney survived the storm, but once it blows over he comes to find that he’s been left alone on Mars, with no immediate way of contacting anyone, or really even surviving longer than maybe a couple of months. And even if he could contact someone, it would take approximately four years to get a mission back out there to save him.

As I write this, it was just yesterday that the news broke of the scientists finding water on Mars, but that was unknown at the time of The Martian’s production, so Watney has that obstacle to work around. Watney is a botanist, so if anyone can figure out how to grow food on Mars it’s him, but still, being a botanist arguably does not make him the best candidate for other needed skills up there, such as mechanical repairs and the like.

The role of Mark Watney is the sort that Tom Hanks might have played, had this film been made fifteen or twenty years ago (see above re: Cast Away, or, for that matter, Apollo 13). He’s a smart, funny, likable guy, and since the viewers essentially spend the better part of 140 minutes alone with him, it’s handy that he’s easy to be around. But the Hanksianism of the role called to mind Damon’s role in Saving Private Ryan—why is he always cast as the guy who needs a rescue team to come and fetch him? The Martian is like Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks in the Matt Damon role, except that it’s actually Matt Damon in the Matt Damon role, playing like Tom Hanks. If that makes any sense at all.

But then, this is me making lazy comparisons to other movies again. The bottom line is that The Martian is enough of a crowd pleaser that you’re likely to like it whether you’ve seen none or all of the other recent movies that sound like this, or whether or not you like sci-fi, or really more or less regardless of your disposition to most movies in general. This is the type of film that reminds you why formulaic movies with big budgets, big stars, and helmed by a big director exist: because sometimes, they work. | Pete Timmermann

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