Sunday, 24 January 2016

Life on Mars

Space is a huge expanse of unexplored place but NASA has that which they can explore in their sights. The plans to put people on Mars in the 2030s is well underway but perhaps today's film will provide some ideas of what to expect when they get there. This is The Martian.

When a terrible storm on the surface of Mars threatens the first manned mission to the planet, the team of astronauts prepare to jet off home. As the storm hits, the team are outside and a piece of debris hits the team's botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon). Losing him in the low visibility and believing him to be dead, the remaining four team members take off to return to Earth. The next Sol (or day in Layman's terms), Watney wakes up to find himself alone in the red deserts of Mars, wounded but alive. His only option in order to survive? Well in his own words, he is going to 'have to science the shit out of this'.

It is no surprise, in a film about one man stranded alone away from humanity, that this is Matt Damon's movie. He is the source of all the comedy (bar one prat fall from Donald Glover) as well as the emotional heart. Whilst the supporting cast consists of a strong ensemble (Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and many others), they never detract from Damon's performance. This being said, often their roles are limited to staring at computer screens and responding emotionally, so as far as that is concerned, they are exceptional.

The Martian, which was dubiously dubbed as a comedy at the Golden Globes, is a smart and emotional film that is as funny as it is thoughtful. It raises questions of morality and ethics, whilst also making jokes about using human faeces as fertiliser. As well as a solid screenplay, The Martian also boasts some gorgeous camera work that turns the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan into a gloriously beautiful Martian landscape. However, at just under two and a half hours, the film runs for just a little bit too long. The middle section begins to drag as the only communication between Earth and Mars is through written text on a computer; the characters read aloud as they type and then again as they receive messages*. Similarly, the end of the film goes on for a long while with drawn out obstacles and plenty of unnecessary shots that add little to the overall narrative.

The film is grounded by the optimism of Damon's Watney; it keeps it real. Ridley Scott's film does not fall into the isolated paranoia of Moon nor into the fantasticism of similar sci-fi movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar but instead remains cheerful, funny, and full of hope. There is a human element at the core of this space drama which is all too often awkwardly handled or overlooked in science fiction (just look at that 'Love and Gravity' scene in Interstellar). In many ways, The Martian succeeds where others in the genre have failed, but it also lacks the grand, epic nature that keeps the audience engaged for two and a half hours.

A fun and enjoyable film, if not a little too long. The many obstacles that face Watney are slowly deminished by the predictibly accurate optimism of the characters, but this does not divert from the quality that The Martian displays. A rare feel good, easy to watch sci-fi which is a welcome addition to an all too often glum and complex genre.

Best Bit? In order to grow potatoes, Watney needs water. To make water, Watney needs to use all of his science knowledge in a brilliant little segment which demonstrates the dangers of fire in space.

*Every Frame a Painting, an excellent channel on youtube, discuss this issue in film in more detail here:

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