Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Martian (2015)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (the Reboot)
"I'm Going to 'Science' the Shit Out of This"

Matt Damon is marooned on an alien planet for his second film in a row in The Martian (based on the best-seller by Andy Weir) and directed by Ridley Scott. And, as befitting castaway movies, an efficient little movie it is, setting up the circumstances for the film in the first ten minutes as an astronaut on a Mars mission is left stranded on the angry red planet with no hope of rescue for at least four years. There's no hope that his crew can come back and get him because in space, no one can hear you say "Can we turn this bus around?" And even if you could, space mechanics (despite Star's Wars and Trek) and Newtonian physics would prevent you unless a significant body with significant gravity could help you turn your bee-line into a 180.

Like its themic progenitor Robinson Crusoe on Mars (which trumpeted on its posters "This film is scientifically is only one step ahead of current reality!"), the film is only a few years from what is possible, given political and budgetary will.  There are scientific lapses—the gravity is wrong, for one thing, people walk with the same gait as they do on Earth, objects fall with the weight of Earth gravity, not the roughly 1/3 gravity as would be experienced on Mars (by contrast the moon has half of that—1/6th—so Mars walking would be less galumphy than on our satellite, but still less oppressive than Earth). It just goes to show the moon-landing deniers that, even with the sophisticated special effects of today, it would still be damned difficult to fake something that would pass photographic scrutiny (if they had a mind to accept it).
The crew of the Ares abandons ship and one a dust-storm.
But, back to the movie...there's no getting around it that unless his buddies can get around something, Damon's character, Mark Watney, space botanist, is going to have a long wait, so he decides to hunker down and find a way to have enough oxygen, enough water, enough pressure, enough food, and some form of communication for four long years before he can get off the rock...and he'll have to make an endurance-testing planet trip in order to get to that next landing site. As he puts it, he's going to have to "science the shit out of it" if he is going to survive the long wait.
"So that's why they called it 'Lonely Planet'..."
To the crew of the homeward-bound Ares III and NASA, Watney is dead, killed by a careening communications dish that goes off its bearings in a Mars-storm. That same accident cuts off all communications with Earth from the surface, so Watney is essentially marooned without help or aid. He takes stock—the mission was cut short and it was a mission for six—and sets up a rationing schedule for how long he can make the meals last and comes to the conclusion quickly that he's going to run out of food if he's there for as long as he suspects, given the next landing. So, as he relates in his running log—probably the worst viewed YouTube channel in history—he decides that he's going to re-purpose part of his "HAB Alone" into a greenhouse in order to grow potatoes. He's a botanist, for crying out loud, and, as one of his crew-mates (the now ubiquitous Michael Peña puts it) "it's not science."
How he does so is so damned clever that you're willing to go along with Watney no matter what lame-brained scheme he may come up with along the way. He walls off a large section of the HAB enclosing it in plastic creating a greenhouse. He goes out and digs a considerable amount of Martian soil (which can't grow anything), fertilizes it with the freeze-dried waste of his fellow astronauts and sets up a reliably wet, tepid atmosphere for hydration by taking oxygen (which he has) and hydrogen (which he has) and burning it (which he can, verrry carefully) to create water, nearly blowing himself up in the process.
But the fundamentals work. Soon he has a crop of burgeoning potato plants that, if he doesn't binge, will get him to the next landing time. Good enough. Now, he sets himself up with two more problems: communication, and outfitting his rover for an extended journey which he will eventually have to take to get him to a landing spot 400 kilometers away—a distance far beyond the rover's battery life or environmental systems. Fortunately, there's some stuff he might be able to use.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, they're starting to notice something. There's an orbiter circling Mars taking shots of the Martian surface, and the wonks at Mission Control are starting to notice something peculiar. The crew has abandoned the Ares habitation module and there's supposedly no one left alive. So, who's moving things around? Why has the rover shifted position from one series of shots to another after the Ares has taken off? In lieu of shy "driver's permit"-carrying creatures that the cameras and instruments haven't detected yet, there comes the immediate suspicion that the announced-dead Watney may have survived. Inconvenient, as they've already had the funeral. "Uh, remember that astronaut we left for dead on Mars? Well, we were half right when we told you that. We left him, but he isn't dead. Our bad."

As Watney puts it on his video log: "Sur-priiise!"
It's at this point that the usually dour Ridley Scott has his moment to be the curmudgeon that he usually is. A wonk (Mackenzie Davis) sees the shifts, reports it to Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Kapoor? He's played by Chiwetel Ejiafor!*), who then reports it to NASA Director Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), Director of Media Relations, who say "It took so long to take it up the chain of command, he's dead by now!" Well, no, they don't say that, they say "Don't let this get out. Don't tell the crew. Don't tell anybody until we're sure of our facts" which is NASA-speak for "we don't have a plan in place or a budget for bringing him back, so in our eyes, he's still as dead as Schrödinger's cat!" See how up-to-date the science is? Watney could be perceived as either living or dead without a government grant! Take that, Interstellar! Now that's REAL theoretical science!
Meanwhile, back at the HAB, Watney is operating without a budget. He's appropriated batteries, augmented them with solar collectors, and a nicely warm nuclear generator as an independent heater and has managed to make the rover a longer-range vehicle that can be recharged during the day and operated at night and more importantly, be livable day or night. Good thing he came up with that idea first because his next goal—communication—will take a little trip to borrow some radio equipment from a not-too-next-door neighbor.
He's heading for the closest Mars Rover, which ran out of battery power many years before and whose home-base, Pathfinder, used to send back all its selfies to Earth. Well, with brand new batteries and a Swiftering of its solar panels, Watney sets up a little audio-visual show for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, if they happen to figure out what that spurious signal is being generated out of Mars. After all, it's been awhile since Pathfinder had something to write home about. Now, it says "there goes the neighborhood."
When Kapoor and company see his tire tracks leaving his habitat, they start wondering where he's going. A quick look at a map of Earth things on Mars show he's heading in the direction of Pathfinder and so, without telling NASA, Kapoor flies out to JPL in Pasadena and says "Ya know, that Pathfinder you've been ignoring for a decade? You might want to take a look..."
Very clever stuff. The sort of "necessity-is-a-mother" thing that's been intriguing since Robinson Crusoe and before to when you start thinking about how things were invented in the first place with just the things available at the time. Things like "duct tape"...
The whole movie has that "ya gotta do what ya gotta do" sort of feel that permeates all aspects of the story and gives it a bit of rebelliousness to it that tosses out the game plan and improvises no matter what anyone else says. That goes down to the story-telling, too, so much of which is done visually, aided and abetted by Damon's journals as the driving force, which, thankfully, is short on drama and awash with self-effacing humor (one of my favorites: "Seven days ago, I ran out of ketchup.") that still manages to make note of the uniqueness of the situation and its inconveniences. One of the running gripes Watney has is the library of music that the Commander of the mission (Jessica Chastain) has left him with, which consists solely of disco music. Thankfully, we're spared "Stayin' Alive" by The Bee-Gees (that's owned by Paramount and this is Fox), but the final credits song could not be more appropriately chosen.
The Martian is also, given director Scott, mercifully short of hardware-fetish (although it is there and taken for granted that we know about artificial gravity and such) and remains solidly "can-do/make-do" in spirit. The performances are uniformly terrific, given their scope, although Damon commands the thing in a "one-man show" performance. It is relentlessly entertaining, in a way that is uncommon in most Ridley Scott movies. Scott always seems to want to find the dark cloud in the silver lining and rub your nose in it. Here, his touch is light, but with echoes of past films in framing and ideas. We spend less time outside of ships and buildings watching them dance or evoke an image and more time inside with the crew. We're not distanced from the drama by set design or bleak pauses of recuperative silence. In this story, time and resources are of the essence, and Scott wastes little of it on indulgences. It's all for plot and character, rather than point.
The Martian is such a fun film to watch and is such an efficient entertainment, it made me suspicious. I wasn't sure exactly of what, other than there was no agenda from the director other than making as spare and bare-bones a film as he could. He wasn't trying to "out-Kubrick" Kubrick or throw some arbitrary ambiguity into the mix to give it some tonal frisson. There's no impractical schmutz in the air (except where it IS practical) or anything else to filter what is essentially a story about survival at its most essential. Could Ridley Scott have seen the story as a simple story of life or death and merely allowed it to "let it be?" I LIKE this no-nonsense Ridley Scott. I hope to see more of him.
In back: Chastain, Hennie, and Damon
In front: Stan, Mara, and Peña (the Marvel kids)

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