Film Reviews

MECHANICAL EYE – <i>The Martian</i> (2015)

MECHANICAL EYE – The Martian (2015)

Claire Graman

November 4th, 2015

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I happened to see The Martian early on a day the theater offered half-price tickets to seniors. As one of the few young people in attendance, I looked around and realized that most of these viewers probably watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon on live television. In an age where NASA struggles for funding and we joke about Pluto’s loss of planethood, it’s easy to forget the sheer wonder and ambition of space travel. The Martian restores this wonder, reveling in the spirit of discovery that drives us to reach for the stars.

The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars when a storm forces his team to evacuate. Facing many challenges — making water, growing food, communicating with Earth — Watney’s tale becomes a space-age Jack London story, classic man-against-nature despite the strange, red environment. But this isn’t only a movie about one man’s endurance. The film cuts between Watney on Mars, his crew on their spaceship, and NASA employees on Earth as they work together to ensure his survival and rescue.

Director Ridley Scott keeps the audience riveted, an impressive feat given the number of scenes where characters are merely talking, yet exhausting with the film’s 140-minute run time. Screenwriter Drew Goddard (adapting a novel by Andy Weir) doesn’t find the same success balancing comedy and suspense as he did with Cabin in the Woods. You won’t laugh very much, but then again, the film doesn’t seem to ask you to. Instead, humor serves its sociological function in the narrative, helping characters cope with hardship and connect with each other. A strong cast (though not without issues) helps, making even minor characters memorable, if not particularly deep. On Earth, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Kristen Wiig, and others argue about the best way to save Watney, while in space, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and the rest cope with their decision to leave their friend behind.

Aside from successfully juggling so many characters, the film does an excellent job making its science-heavy plot accessible and plausible, even while pulling concepts from botany, physics, programing, chemistry, and rocket science. The Martian looks beautiful as well, with Mars’ rugged landscape and the spaceship and station’s artificial but hospitable set design. Taking a cue from Guardians of the Galaxy, the film uses a retro-pop soundtrack, making outer space a bit less frightening. Matt Damon’s affably belligerent persona also minimizes the terror of his situation.

Unlike a similar movie, Moon, The Martian doesn’t explore the psychological impact of isolation, though Watney does talk to himself and to cameras around the station, allowing important plot points to be explained in a natural way. Of course, with the world anxiously following his plight, Watney never really feels alone. By cutting between different plot lines, Scott connects the struggle of the individual with that of society, with everyone working together for a common goal, showing just what humanity is capable of at its most intelligent, brave, and selfless.

The Martian continues its run at the Regal Valley River Stadium 15 and Cinemark 17. Click here for showtimes.

Claire Graman is an English PhD candidate at the University of Oregon. She studies history, film, and when the two collide. Mechanical Eye is an irregular column in which she provides critical analyses of films screening locally.

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