Friday, October 2, 2015

The Martian: NASA's answer to Top Gun

this trailer is selling a slightly different movie (it also contains some spoilers IMO)

The opening line of Andy Weir's novel begins:

I'm pretty much fucked.
That's my considered opinion.
Fucked.

Early on, the movie adaptation drops the F-bomb twice, which is the maximum allowed for a PG-13 film, given there's not much violence or any nudity. Through the use of clever cutaways, the filmmakers manage to preserve the unfiltered character nicely for the film. And no, these workarounds are not nearly as insulting as sanitizing the curse word with a perfectly timed gunshot à la Live Free and Die Hard.

I'm glad, too. Mark Whatley (Matt Damon) is an endearing character whose cursing is integral to the full experience. He's the only human on Mars. His diet, consisting mostly of microwaved potatoes, is in constant peril. Worst of all, he just ran out of ketchup. That he only says (and types) "fuck" a handful of times is pretty amazing, really.

The first thing that struck me about The Martian were the landscapes. None of it was obvious CGI and none of it looked like rose-colored Earth locations, either. Most of the time the horizons and the faraway sun look just about right. Having just seen the trailer for Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, whose liberal use of cheap CGI verges on obscene, I couldn't believe what my eyes were seeing. The Martian has some of the best special effects ever. Every bit of this movie is visually believable.

The movie wastes no time setting up the comradely among the martian astronauts, whose mission to Mars is jeopardized by a freak storm. The mission commander (Jessica Chastain) makes the hard decision to return to Earth prematurely. Moments later, she has to make the even harder decision to leave Whatley behind when he's struck by a satellite dish that's just been ripped off of their habitat by the wind. Everyone believes he's dead because the component which relays his life signs has been impaled by shrapnel.

The film trades first person narration for the video diaries Whatley makes to entertain himself, which often involves him ransacking his coworkers' personal effects and making fun of what he finds. He tells the GoPro cameras stationed around the hab what he's up to every step of the way. The first order of business is setting up a crop a of potatoes. Then he'll have to "science the shit out of the situation" in order to send an SOS back home. At one point he says in a weak voice, "Surprise."

Early on it becomes clear Murphy's Law is in full effect. You always know something is going to go wrong, but you never know what or when. That may sound like the story becomes a little predictable, but it provides the kind of suspense which made Apollo 13 so enjoyable even though we all knew the characters in that movie would make it back home. Like that movie, The Martian doesn't try too hard to make its audience teary-eyed. (See: Mission to Mars for an example of one of the worst offenses in that category... bleh!)

The Martian is one of the best films in years. It's so good I think it's safe to say Ridley Scott has atoned for Prometheus and a lot of the other movies he's made in this portion of his career. For the past few weeks, NASA TV has been leveraging The Martian's hype to drum up interest in space. I guarantee you there will be kids who see this movie and aim for careers in science because of it. It's good the filmmakers went for the PG-13 rating after all.

The Martian has everything I wanted from Gravity and Interstellar. This is real science fiction and not the typical Hollywood bastardization of the genre. Sure, a few of the things that happen are unlikely (Weir himself said he wishes he had chosen a different disaster to kick off the story), but there are plenty of scenes here which contain more science than movies like Mission to Mars and Red Planet combined.

I think one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed this movie so much is because every time a "serious director" makes a space movie, they fall back on trying to homage Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (see the stupidly mystical climax of Interstellar). Scott knows he's not going to top 2001: A Space Odyssey and he feels no need to allude to it in any way. It's its own movie and makes no apologies for it.

This is easily the best science fiction movie of the 21st century. It's no wonder why the NASA program seems to be promoting it like their version of Top Gun, which was a boon to the Navy's recruitment efforts. We need more movies like it.

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