Zaki's Review: The Martian

I first read Andy Weir's bestseller The Martian a little over a year ago. Actually, "inhaled" might be a better word to use. The story, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, his struggle to survive and the struggles on Earth to try and bring him home, is about as gripping a book as I've ever consumed, and I blazed through it in a matter of days. Upon finishing it, knowing a film was already on the way, extreme anticipation commingled with extreme dread as I wondered how the Hollywood assembly line would attempt to "improve" on Weir's perfectly proportioned prose.

Well, it turns out I needn't have worried. As directed by Ridley Scott (making his return to outer space just three years after his Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus landed in theaters), from a script by Drew Goddard, Twentieth Century Fox's feature adaptation of The Martian is everything I could have hoped for, one of the most engaging would-be blockbusters we've gotten all year. While it boasts plenty of amazing effects and wide open vistas to justify its apportionment of IMAX screens, the film (featuring a droll Matt Damon in the title role) is a celebration of science, selflessness, and good old fashioned smarts.

The Martian is set in a near future where exploratory missions to Mars have become, if not commonplace, at least semi-regular occurrences (which, given the current sorry state of our country's space exploration efforts, is sadly the one thing that really marks this movie as science fiction). After being buffeted by a deadly sandstorm, the crew of Ares 3 is forced to abandon the Red Planet, but not before one of their number is nailed by debris and presumed dead. As it turns out, a freak of timing and luck has left that astronaut, botanist Mark Watney (Damon), very much alive, but also very much alone.

Compounding problems considerably for Watney, even if he can somehow manage to connect with the folks back home at NASA and let them know that he's still alive, the soonest that another ship could arrive to retrieve him is four years away. And so, marooned on a barren planet with only the contents of a temporary habitat to sustain him, Watney must rely on his own extensive know-how to "science the s**t out of it" (which I'm confident will become a new catchphrase), as he MacGyvers up news ways of keeping himself alive until a rescue arrives -- if it ever does.

There are no space monsters here. No laser beams, teleporters, tractor beams, or other sci-fi accoutrements. This is science fact. And at its core, it's a classic "what would you do?" survival drama. Sure, The Martian bears some superficial similarities in premise to Cast Away (not to mention a different set of similarities to another Tom Hanks vehicle, Apollo 13), but it largely steers clear of existential angst in favor of more immediate life-or-death concerns. Will Watney be able to turn a handful of potatoes into crops? Will he find a way to jury rig his gear to generate water? Will he be able to contact Earth? Will he find anything other than old disco records to listen to?

Every new solution creates its own set of challenges that must then be overcome, but Watney tackles it all with an appealingly acidic sense of humor. Damon (who played a similar-yet-different role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar just under a year ago) easily commands our attention for the big chunk of screen-time he's on his own, but he's not the only one who gets top marks. There's the team at Mission Control on Earth: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and others. There's the rest of the Ares 3 crew, including Jessica Chastain (also an Interstellar vet) as mission commander Lewis, and Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara as her crew.

The entire cast turn in solid performances that help us not only buy into the underlying reality of the situation, but also in the human capacity for shared sacrifice. For working together toward a common, selfless purpose. That's powerful stuff, and it's a message that's always necessary. Featuring terrific visual effects, compelling performances, and an engrossing storyline, The Martian is all you want from a big screen entertainment. In fact, I can see a whole generation of kids watching this flick and setting their personal compasses for a career in the space program. Here's hoping there's a space program left for them by the time they're old enough to join it. A

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