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Film Review

Life on Mars

10/7/2015

At the end of the day, maybe the best thing that you can say about “The Martian” is that it illustrates how Hollywood can make the safe, boring story choice and still manage to create a completely engrossing film.

“The Martian” is the new Ridley Scott film based on the Andy Weir book by the same name. It follows Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a crew member on Ares III, the third manned mission to Mars. Six Mars days into Ares III’s mission, a large storm forces the crew to abruptly abort and head for home. In the trek from the crew habitat to the escape rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of debris and is lost in the darkness and blowing sand. Presuming him dead and faced with the prospect of losing the entire crew if she spends too much time searching for him, Mission Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) aborts the launch, and the rest of the crew heads back to Earth.

“The Martian” PG-13 141 minutes Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean

“The Martian”
PG-13
141 minutes
Starring: Matt
Damon, Jessica
Chastain, Jeff
Daniels, Sean Bean

Watney, of course, is not dead. Once the storm blows over and Watney returns to the habitat, he begins to tackle the two very large problems that lay in front of him. Unless he can contact NASA, nobody will know he’s alive. But even if he does, it will be at least four years before anyone can come get him — and he only has two months of food.

It is at this point in the narrative where Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard were forced to make a decision.

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“The Martian,” in book form, was written by a self-professed science nerd. It is a story written for people who saw the “we need to build an air filter out of these random parts” scene from “Apollo 13” and wished the whole movie could be just that scene. About 70 percent of the story is deeply scientific. But it is told in such an engaging, accessible manner, that even the biggest of laymen can follow along.

When converting the story to film, Scott and Goddard could have remained true to the book and included all the science-y bits that pleased the book’s biggest fans, or they could scrap 90 percent of the science, focus on the human elements of the story and take the safer road for mass appeal. They chose the latter.

And yet — and I’m speaking as someone who loved the book — the film version of “The Martian” is nothing short of amazing. It is visually stunning. Damon is the perfect choice to play Watney, and supporting roles featuring Donald Glover, Chastain and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wonderfully cast. The film retains most of the book’s humor and charm.

The hardcore fans of the book will be disappointed by how quickly most of the establishing science that keeps Watney alive is rushed through. The ending 30 minutes is also substantially changed from the book, mostly for time reasons. But nevertheless, “The Martian” is riveting. Scott is great at showcasing how alone Watney is on the planet’s surface and sustaining a level of tension that only ratchets up as the film progresses. There are some breathtaking visuals, the climax moves at breakneck speeds, and the film is tight and well paced, in spite of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour run time.

After a late summer swoon that saw a long run of clunkers at the theater, “The Martian” has landed, and not a moment too soon. CV

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