‘The Martian’: TIFF Review

12 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Martian’ review: A captivating adventure.

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara say they did just that while shooting some of the zero-gravity scenes for the upcoming space epic The Martian. Venturing to Mars in Ridley Scott’s feel-good sci-fi movie The Martian was like being a child again, Matt Damon and co-stars said Friday at the Toronto Film Festival. “As big as these movies are, you end up like you were a kid in your bedroom pretending that you were in space.The actress tells THR that she has yet to share much screen time with Matt Damon after two projects, but praises him and Jennifer Lawrence for being a rare Hollywood find.‘Alien’ stylist Ridley Scott has rewritten the rules of sci-fi multiple times over his half-century career, but this time, the dystopian maestro sees hope in our stars.

The film reaches for the dramatic tension of Apollo 13 and the 3D grandeur of Gravity, and while it doesn’t quite hit the highs of either, it’s still an exciting science-fiction tale of survival. Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. For his third trip into space (after “Elysium’’ and his “surprise’’ unbilled supporting role in “Interstellar’’), Damon spends around 75 percent of the two-hour-plus film on screen alone. It’s totally, totally ridiculous, but within the confines of the frame, it totally works, and you can’t tell.” “The zero-gravity stuff I was really looking forward to. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on the red planet when his crewmates believe he is dead, and forced to find a way to keep alive until he can contact Earth and be rescued.

He’s an American astronaut who’s left behind for dead by his crew mates after they begin the long journey back to Earth following a storm that forces them to abort their mission. Here are five things we learned from the premiere screening: We’re used to seeing movies with astronauts floating around weightless, but realistically replicating the reduced gravity of Mars is still too tricky.

It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s “science fact” adaptation. Unlike the selfish space castaway he played in Interstellar, Damon’s astronaut botanist is charming, witty and goodhearted, and we desperately want him to survive.

Kate Mara, another astronaut in The Martian, also appreciated simulated space travel, yet with her feet firmly planted back on Earth. “I would never make it as an astronaut. The hard part is stretching his limited food supply until the scheduled arrival of a Mars lander four years in the future, since he has no way of communicating to Earth that he’s still alive. Considering that the United States hasn’t launched a manned space mission since 2011, “The Martian” should do far more than just make Fox a ton of money; it could conceivably rekindle interest in the space program and inspire a new generation of future astronauts. When Mark Watney (Matt Damon) regains consciousness after having been impaled by an errant antenna and knocked out, he quickly assesses the situation: He’s millions of miles from home and, based on the food supply, concludes that he’s got a month to live.

Fortunately, Damon is a botanist, and a very ingenious one at that, managing to create a greenhouse and generate extra water to water his crop of potatoes. Watney is the lowest-ranking member of his team and the least equipped to handle such a situation — with one notable caveat: As a botany specialist, his assignment was to investigate whether plants could grow in an environment without fertilizer or water — and now, with only enough food to last 400 sols and the next planned mission nearly four years away, Watney’s ability to pull off that tall order will determine whether he lives or dies.

Few directors have opted for Stanley Kubrick’s silent shots of spaceships in motion, but Scott includes a nice scene of Watney in his rover, terribly upset by news from home. There’s no obstacle that Damon’s ingenious astronaut isn’t able to “science the s— out of,” no setback that he can’t ultimately overcome.

Most of the early-going is devoted to the man making calculations as to how he can maximize his time on the arid planet, beginning by growing more potatoes from the ones he’s got (in part by using his own home-made manure). A bit before this, his colleagues at NASA have already figured out that Damon, who has already been given a hero’s funeral, is still alive based on satellite images. Actually, there are a thousand different real-world things that could kill him, but it’s clear he won’t survive unless he manages to “cultivate” Mars. Large chunks of the movie go something like this: dire dilemma arises, Watney and/or earthbound scientists come up with a wildly creative solution, and we watch Watney hack and hammer it out.

Living in the relatively spacious quarters he and his colleagues set up, Mark cannibalizes everything he can, carefully apportions his rations and settles in for the long term; at moments, the biggest threat to his sanity is the exclusive collection of ‘70s disco music left behind by one of his former astronauts. Before “Gravity,” studio executives might have thought twice before greenlighting such a big-budget space drama (surely such Mars-set disappointments as “Red Planet,” “John Carter” and “Mission to Mars” must give them pause), and while a good portion of “The Martian’s” audience will surely be hoping for a repeat of Sandra Bullock’s white-knuckle experience, Scott has a different agenda altogether.

The Martian makes some references to Hohmann transfer orbits (a technical term for a low-energy way to get to Mars) and a few other specialized terms, but it’s mostly in plain English. After all, we’re talking about the man responsible for the second and third most influential sci-fi movies of all time (after “Star Wars”), and the director of such iconic pics as “Alien” and “Blade Runner” has better things to do than repeat himself — or anyone else, for that matter. “The Martian” innovates once again, this time moving in the direction of the plausible to present the most realistic version Scott and his team can manage of a manned mission to Mars (with a few well-chosen stylistic flourishes, courtesy of costume designer Janty Yates). After Mark’s tragedy has been duly mourned by the public, a sharp-eyed NASA technician notices ground movement in her surveillance of the Martian surface that could only be Mark moving around. There is much debate between the conservative, image-conscious NASA director (Jeff Daniels) and the more gung-ho head of NASA’s Mars missions (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though the film proves reasonably suspenseful in parts, Scott isn’t trying to generate the same realtime intensity as “Gravity” (in fact, “The Martian” takes place over nearly two years, demanding an altogether different pace), nor does he distract himself with attempting to pioneer the field of 3D filmmaking (though he does incorporate the technology in effective, yet nondistracting ways).

Communication is duly re-established, which ignites both elation at his survival and frantic assessments of what it would take, and cost, to launch a rescue mission. While all this is going on, Damon is figuring out ingenious solutions to all sort of problems until Murphy’s Law kicks in and he literally has to resort to a plastic tarp and duct tape to keep going. At its most basic, “The Martian” serves as an epic homage to the nerd — a deferential widescreen celebration of human intelligence in a genre that so often hinges on speed, braun or sheer midi-chlorian levels (thanks for nothing, George Lucas). Weir’s book is heavy with technical assessments of food and oxygen supplies, mechanical capabilities, flight duration and the physics of inter-planetary travel.

And while Watney may be stranded by himself on Mars, he’s anything but alone, with the best minds on earth working overtime to bring him home — if only he can figure out how to communicate with the good folks at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Mars is so far away that even saying “No” and getting an unprintable response can take up to 45 minutes. (Judicious editing allows the film to show conversations that seem instantaneous but would actually take hours.) Screenwriter Drew Goddard (World War Z, Cloverfield) has respected all these details while whittling them down to manageable and comprehensible levels. A highly complicated and extremely risky rescue mission involving a top-secret Chinese missile and Damon’s fellow crew members (including Kate Mara and Michael Peña) develops. Officials at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (represented by a lively and individualistic cast including Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover) do everything they can to develop a feasible rescue plan and are ultimately helped out by a surprising foreign partner.

Let’s just say that Jessica Chastain, who is barely in the first two-thirds of movie as the mission commander, heroically justifies her second billing. With no acid-dripping extra-terrestrials to menace him on Mars and no James Cameron-style greedy corporate villains ready to sacrifice him on earth (just Jeff Daniels, still in “The Newsroom” mode, as a pragmatic NASA honocho forced to make some tough calls), “The Martian” feels downright, well, Martian compared to the vast majority of space-travel dramas.

But ultimately it comes down to the willingness of Mark’s astronaut colleagues (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) to place themselves at great risk by attempting a long-shot rescue attempt, a decision that raises the provocative moral dilemma of whether it’s correct to put five lives at great risk for the remote reward of saving one life. Scott does generate a degree of suspense in this climactic stretch, but the film’s overall tone is dominated by the characters’ collegial humor, mutual respect among professionals and smart people being tested by an unprecedented challenge.

Derived from a novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian’’ is a straightforward and thrilling survival-and-rescue adventure, without the metaphysical and emotional trappings of “Interstellar.’’ Awards prospects seem minimal outside the technical categories, but that probably won’t bother Fox, since the studio has a brainy-but-fun film that could achieve the trajectory for something like the $675-million worldwide gross achieved by “Interstellar.’’ The sleek, science-friendly elegance of Arthur Max’s production design recalls “Silent Running” (another sci-fi parable with a botanist hero), its running series of logistical challenges echoes Arthur C. The director and screenwriter downplay the conventional melodrama inherent in the situation in favor of emphasizing how practical problems should be addressed with rational responses rather than hysteria, knee-jerk patriotism or selfish expedience.

Clarke sequel “2010” and the highly visual, high-stakes decision making suggests Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine.” But instead of trying to scare people off space travel, Scott and company recombine these elements in hopes of inspiring a generation for whom the moon landing and shuttle missions are now ancient history, practically nostalgia, while the American space program sits mothballed. The result is an uncustomarily cheery and upbeat film from Scott, a number of whose works range from the despairing (Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down) to the nihilistic (Hannibal, The Counselor). There is also a sense that the meticulous sense of resourcefulness, the upbeat get-the-job-done attitude exemplified by Mark is very much akin to the director’s own, to the point that the optimistic lining common to both the novel and the film seems at one with the story itself and not an artificial, Hollywood-induced spin.

That was the hollow promise “Tomorrowland” offered this past summer, featuring a feel-good epilogue in which its white heroes recruited a diverse range of talented young people around the world. In significant measure due to his character’s mordant humor, which Goddard has slightly amplified from the book, Damon provides comfortable company during the long stretches when he’s onscreen alone, and the actor’s physicality makes Mark’s capability entirely credible.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski turns the neat trick of providing the film with a fundamental documentary reality while also making a thing of great beauty. Scott recycles some of his cast (including mission commander Jessica Chastain) from Christopher Nolan’s eye-crossing “Interstellar,” in which Damon played an astronaut with far more sinister intentions, and though “The Martian” can be even more densely geek-speak in places, Goddard’s script manages to parse the technical jargon for lay viewers. As Michael Pena puts it, “But like in English, what would that be?” after his colleagues hit him with one of their more technical solutions. (Chastain and Pena share the return vessel with Kate Mara, Aksel Hennie and Sebastian Stan, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and a half-serious Kristen Wiig brainstorm from the ground.) Weir did his research when writing the novel, basing each of Watney’s MacGyver-like solutions (using recycled human waste to turn Thanksgiving potatoes into a viable crop, burning hydrazine rocket fuel to create water, etc.), as well as their subsequent setbacks (killer Martian frost, explosive chemical reactions), on scenarios that could reasonably arise on Mars. The idea here is to capitalize on the excitement of human ingenuity, the musical metaphor for which can be heard percolating behind the team’s every breakthrough— and they are a team.

Whereas films prefer to cast heroism as the doing of a single rebellious soul, this one does justice to the idea (hammy when Michael Bay tries to show it, a la “Armageddon”) that truly amazing feats depend on the collaboration of exceptional people. Rather than giving Watney a Wilson volleyball or HAL-like supercomputer to chat with, Goddard relies on another of the book’s “Robinson Crusoe”-like touches (Daniel Dafoe’s novel was written in the character’s voice and fooled early readers as a faux travelogue), giving him amusing “HAB journal” entries — or video diaries — in which to document his own progress. Dariusz Wolski seamlessly eases audiences between the intimate loneliness of Watney’s habitat and the magisterial land- and space-scapes beyond — no easy feat, as the Eames brothers’ “Powers of Ten” proved the year Scott made his directorial debut. Though Watney has already proven his resourcefulness by doctoring his own puncture wound, his recordings serve the dual purpose of giving him a chance to explain complicated science ideas while endearing us to Damon’s naturally charismatic personality.

The poor guy does his best to keep his mind active on Mars, but with only a collection of disco hits and “Happy Days” episodes to simulate human company, even the sanest astronaut would start to go a little stir crazy — although, admittedly, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” has seldom seemed a more appropriate anthem.

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