BRING HIM HOME.
If you’ve ever been to Wadi Rum in Jordan, you’ve been to Mars. The valley has been Hollywood’s favorite location for movies set on the planet, its red sand and mountains being a perfectly convincing stand-in. That’s Wadi Rum you see in Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000) and The Last Days on Mars (2013). Unfortunately, none of these films have been worth your time. It’s almost been a curse for Hollywood, but finally we have a movie about Mars that you should pay money to see. As an added bonus, it is also Ridley Scott’s finest effort since Gladiator (2000).
Sometime in the near future, we have developed the capability to send manned missions to Mars. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is the commander of Ares III and her crew has spent a short time on the planet when a violent storm hits. Lewis gives the order to evacuate, but Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris and is presumed dead. Ares III begins its journey back to Earth. The day after, Whatney wakes up, makes it to the abandoned habitat, takes care of his wounds and assesses the situation. He has no way of contacting NASA. There’s plenty of food left, but it won’t last forever. Fortunately, Whatney is a botanist and figures out a (disgusting) way to grow potatoes in a controlled environment.
After some time, when NASA is reviewing satellite photos of Mars, they realize that Whatney isn’t dead… but getting supplies to the planet will take years.
After self-publishing his novel “The Martian” online, author Andy Weir’s literary agent sold it to a publishing house using “Apollo 13 meets Cast Away” as a pitch. The agent certainly hit the nail on its head, and this film adaptation is just as good as those now-classic survival movies.
Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay, respected the meticulous research done by Weir (who studied astronomy and orbital mechanics), which is part of why The Martian is so compelling. After Gravity and Interstellar, we’ve come to expect movies about space travel to be as scientifically accurate and challenging as possible. This one feels realistic, both in Whatney’s work on Mars to keep himself alive (becoming sort of a MacGyver in the process) and NASA:s large-scale efforts to find a way to reach Mars and rescue their man before running out of time. There’s a lot of scientific work here, but Scott makes sure the movie never turns into a math lecture – there’s a great sense of humor and optimism in his approach that endures, even though Whatney’s situation is frightening. He also has great help from the cast. The supporting actors are wonderful, including Jeff Daniels who plays his NASA Administrator the same way he did Will McAvoy on The Newsroom (2012-2014).
But The Martian wouldn’t be this good without Matt Damon, who’s thoroughly engaging as the abandoned astronaut. We sort of fall in love with him as he tapes his videolog, chronicling everything he goes through on Mars. Technically, the film is a marvel to watch, with visual effects in 3D that take us to the red planet and boost an exhilarating final half-hour as the rescue operation kicks into high gear. Harry Gregson-Williams wrote a music score that emphasizes the thrilling aspect of taking humans as far as Mars.
Shortly after the premiere of this film, I saw a funny Facebook post by someone pointing out that considering Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar and The Martian, the American government has spent a ridiculous amount of money to retrieve Matt Damon. That’s true. But it’s worth it every time, right?
The Martian 2015-U.S. 141 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood. Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay: Drew Goddard. Novel: Andy Weir. Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski. Music: Harry Gregson-Williams. Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Whatney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara… Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Damon).
Last word: “The desert [in Jordan] was virgin, [and] the rocks are spectacular — I’d compare it to Monument Valley. It was absolutely marvelous. We hit it great because it was only 70 degrees as opposed to 120 [degrees]. It looked great, but I wanted it to be more terracotta red. I love to color grade [adjust the color of the picture on screen]. It’s the final act on my film. I literally sit there with a technician artist and we grade the goddamn movie. It’s a lot of knobs and twisting. You see the whole thing come alive. And by then, I’ve put in all the skies. Every sky shot has a trail of dust going through it.” (Scott, Yahoo!)