NASA is still trying to put a man on Mars. Which is a fine endeavor. But when “The Martian” debuted in 2015, I felt we’d be better served if NASA had put its considerable resources toward helping to contain the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. If ever there was a situation that called for all hands on deck, right? At the time, it seemed conceivable that we’d all die of radiation, or irradiated tunafish, before NASA figured out how to fly humans 34 million miles from the blue planet to the red planet. I’m still pretty sure we’ll be seeing eight-headed turtles before man ever sets foot on Mars.
However, via their fictional NASA, Hollywood put Matt Damon on Mars so we could stick our collective heads in the Martian sand and forget about Fukushima for two hours. Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” was an instantaneous, thrilling American space classic about ingenuity, courage, and all-for-one-and-one-for-all teamwork. Director Scott had transcended the slump he was in, and there’s really nothing we don’t enjoy watching Matt Damon in.
There’s a space crew on Mars, outside their module, collecting samples, when a Martian haboob (Mars here looks very Hindu Kush-like; “haboob” is Arabic for sandstorm) blows up: red sand everywhere, blocking out the sun.
Due to an equipment malfunction, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney gets skewered with a flying antenna. While he’s down for the count, lost in the haboob, his crew abort the mission, blast off, and leave him for dead.
But he’s not dead, and he’s a botanist, so he jury-rigs and MacGuyver’s up a greenhouse. And ransacks the collection of space-crew freeze-dried poo-packets to make some, ahem, in-a-pinch—fertilizer! It’ll be four years before anyone can conceivably get to him, so he’d better grow some tasty vittles. Such as bushels of pootatoes (not a typo).
Ground Control to Maj. Mark
Back on earth, Watney’s given a hero’s farewell, and then the satellite-monitoring NASA scientists discover he’s still alive. What to do? Tell the crew? They need to concentrate on getting home safe. But is there any hope for a rescue?
First order of business, more low-tech jerry-building: Watney treks (in the Martian dune-buggy) a long distance to a buried piece of communication equipment from a previous mission, and with much duct-taping, a rudimentary spelling gizmo is hatched. Now Mark Watney, extraterrestrial, can phone home.
Some of this jury-rigging and jerry-building is reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr.’s lab-tinkering on the “Iron Man” suit, replete with an explosion that blasts him across a room and bounces him off a wall; it’s the exact same gag and almost as funny. It’s a sure bet Ridley Scott was inspired by “Iron Man”; there’s more than a little Iron Man-like maneuvering involved in Watney’s rescue attempt. As the saying goes, good artists borrow, great artists steal.
Jeff Daniels plays the no-fun, budget-and-image-conscious NASA director, while Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the head of NASA’s Mars missions; he’s much more in touch with the astronauts and scientists.
Donald Glover plays the rudimentary-life-skills-challenged super-geek who does the mega-math and masterminds a classified, high-risk meta-rescue involving a Chinese missile.
Kristen Wiig plays NASA’s director of public relations. Audiences immediately laugh, just looking at her, so conditioned are we to seeing Wiig wigging out, comedically. Which she does here in muted form.
Sean Bean plays a NASA flight director. Look for a nice grouping of “Lord Of The Rings” inside jokes in his presence. And then there’s Michael Peña, whose star had fully risen by 2015. There’s no more imminently watchable actor these days than Peña; he’s a rare actor who can shine brightly on both extremes of the comedy–drama spectrum.
In American pop-culture, if you let enough time go by, you can shoehorn even our most annoying, ickiest pop songs into a movie, and have the mash-up create a weird kind of wonderful atmosphere. The barrel-bottom dredging of ’70s AM-radio musical cheese for movie soundtracks, happening in “The Martian,” undoubtedly has “Guardians of the Galaxy” to thank. It features disco “classics,” ABBA, and the fluffier David Bowie cuts jammed in there under the pretext that they’re Capt. Melissa Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) personal playlist.
Will they drive Watney mad, should he discover them? Will they drive you mad? You may discover that hearing songs which, in any other context, would normally provoke a knee-jerk, “Turn it off!!!” flailing response, here they’ll make you feel strangely happy.
Damon is the man for this role of the astronaut/farmer-as-standup-comedian, the only flaw being that the situations and set pieces telegraph low-hanging-fruit jokes with obvious punchlines. Then again, it’s nice to see Ridley Scott, normally a creator of creatures who bite your face off—going for some laughs.
“The Martian” really boils down to the dedication of teams; people who signed on for come-what-may because it’s their calling—in this case ingenious jury-rigging creativity and the brain-power to handle the math behind the astrophysics. And to use their talents to save one of their own. They can’t get enough of that. Neither can we.
It seems apropos to end with a Beatles lyric more fitting for the film than, say, ABBA’s “Waterloo”: “Limitless undying love, which shines around me like a million suns, it calls me on and on across the universe.”
I still feel the real NASA should stop focusing on space travel and attempt to rectify Fukushima’s aftermath and purify earth’s water supply, before the world’s oceans turn red, thereby creating two red planets in the universe, which will render future Mars missions redundant.
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Péna, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover
Running Time: 2 hours, 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Oct. 2, 2015
Rating: 4 stars out of 5 for all-around enjoyable movie fun, 4 stars for reminding us what’s important