Friday, October 23, 2015


In another of our ongoing series of joint movie reviews, Donna and Laurie give you the scoop on Sir Ridley Scott's action-packed science fiction flick THE MARTIAN, starring Matt Damon. Will it be a GO or NO-GO? And are we sure they saw the same movie?

Laurie: Time for Some Thrilling Science Heroics!

I'm sure it will come as no surprise that The Martian was a definite GO for me. Having read the novel--and the story behind the novel--I was waiting with enthusiastic anticipation (okay, that's a big understatement) to see just how it would all unfold on the big screen.

Brilliantly, thank you very much.

First, there was the visual impact. There are differences between what my mind conjured at the word "habitat" and actually seeing the high tech, bells and whistles on-screen environment. Between envisioning what a rugged Martian landscape might look like in my head, and actually viewing the immense red-hued vistas splashed across the big screen. Yet as engrossing as these images were, it was the story that packed the real punch.

For a time, I found myself stranded right there alongside Mark Watney (Matt Damon), in an utterly hostile world devoid of air, water, food or survivable temperatures. Though the odds of survival were about nil, he tackled each new problem as it came with eye-opening resourcefulness and a keen sense of humor. Surviving impossible odds became an adventure!

The movie took a very "show don't tell" approach that was more enjoyable than the novel's sometimes heavy-handed scientific descriptions. Although having read the book, maybe I had the advantage of knowing exactly what Watney was up to.

Very little is revealed about the main character's life back on Earth or those friends and family he left behind, however a great deal is inferred about his relationship with his tight-knit crew and how they function as a unit. Lacking any epic battle scenes, hero-to-villain grappling, or intelligent-but-demonic tech, the story provides plenty of drama through the power struggles and political posturing back home, when a NASA underling discovers the left-for-dead Watney is still alive and calculating back on Mars.

In Watney's own words: "Surpriiise."

The tension ramps up as the members of mission control walk an emotional tightrope, arguing the risk of a rescue attempt against further loss of life. The clock ticks down. Bad choices are made. Wrong conclusions are drawn. And at each new catastrophe, poor Mark Watney seems more doomed than ever. Until the reins are wrestled from the powers-that-be in one very bold, and probably criminal, act.

Director Sir Ridley Scott is best know for such diverse and atmospheric works as Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator. To The Martian, he brought a sweeping sense of isolation and desolation countered by the power of human ingenuity and the heroics of applied science. Add superb casting (Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor--the Operative villain from the Firefly motion picture, Serenity), big budget special effects, and a classic 70s soundtrack (a tongue-in-cheek running gag), and the film really ticked all the boxes for me.

What was the movie missing? For the most part, it followed the book quite closely. One notable difference was Watney's trek across the Martian landscape, which in the film was a lot less perilous or strenuous than in the literary version. But the film added a nice closing prologue that I felt made a terrific wrap. After all the trials and tribulations, I wanted to spend just a few more minutes with these exceptional characters, and the movie allowed me to do that.

Overall, I'd rank The Martian right up there in my top four Science Fiction-with-an-emphasis-on-Science motion pictures of all times, taking its place beside such greats as Apollo 13, Contact and 2010

Donna: Utilitarian MARTIAN Gets the Job Done

The science fiction film of the hour, THE MARTIAN, in theaters now, is a lot like its stranded astronaut hero, Mark Watney (Matt Damon): smart, engaging, full of black humor and a love of science and technology. But unlike Watney, who can claim to be the “first colonist on Mars,” THE MARTIAN explores no new worlds of cinematic art or drama. It’s a Mars rover of a movie, just getting the storytelling job done as efficiently as possible.

Sweeping red-hued Martian desert vistas? Check. Ongoing cuts back to tension-filled rooms full of science geeks frantically trying to figure out what to do about this guy somehow left behind on Mars? Check. Requisite final nail-biting moments in the vacuum of space (at incredible speeds)? Check. 

Yep, all the elements are there for some popcorn-gobbling fun (despite the whole nightsoil-mixing scene and the image of Watney after months of semi-starvation). And I won’t deny that THE MARTIAN is entertaining. The acting is spot-on: Matt Damon carries the story as Watney with his usual screen charisma and supporting characters Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena and Chiwetel Ejiofor all do a fantastic job. The directing is tight and the set design and art direction will probably win Oscars.

But there is something missing in this story. In a way, this isn’t a surprise, since it’s missing from the original novel upon which the movie is based, Andy Weir’s otherwise excellent novel The Martian. We know everything Mark Watney thinks at every moment. We see every action he takes to solve his problems. We see all the folks at NASA working feverishly to help him. But only one person ever really takes a minute to feel anything. Predictably, this is a woman, the female commander in charge of the Mars mission that left Mark behind thinking he was dead. Several times, she is caught feeling guilty and is quickly chastised for it by everyone around her.

NASA and its astronauts love this movie for its depiction of the heroism and calm, can-do attitude of Watney, the NASA mission control team and the Hermes crew. They exemplify what NASA and its astronauts are all about. As a lifetime supporter of NASA and the space program I certainly applaud that spirit. But realistically? Don’t you think Watney just once would have had a thought of the enormity of his situation? And been scared spitless?

THE MARTIAN has been compared to an earlier film about a real-life disaster-saved-by- duct-tape, APOLLO 13. That film, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, was an edge-of-your-seat thriller with enough emotion to leave you wanting either a drink or your bed and blankie at the end. That was an enduring film.

But this is a different time in film history and director Sir Ridley Scott, who directed two of the greatest SF films of all time (BLADE RUNNER, ALIEN), must have realized he was making this film for a different audience. He keeps it light and the POV external, making Mark Watney the Jason Bourne of science. Only the “bad guys” chasing Watney are the human-killing environment of Mars and the infernal math of great distance vs. time.

So, the call on this movie-going mission? Grab your popcorn and GO. Just don’t expect an AVATAR or GRAVITY this time around.

Cheers, Donna


  1. My fella and I saw this a couple weekends ago and I enjoyed reading each of your takes on it. We very much enjoyed the movie. Loved the humor, and the fact that the only weapons and armor the hero had were (was?) science.

    We too had a sense that the film wasn't all we expected it to be, but couldn't put our finger on why. One thing that occurred to me was that all the people involved acted as reasonably as you'd hope and expect any humans to act. Clearly in this film they wanted to focus on the environmental adversary. The feeling of everyone working together (and almost always being on the same page) was refreshing and enjoyable, and yet left me with a feeling of the film being on the light side. Maybe I'm too used to stories with big villains!

    But the same could be said of Apollo 13, if I remember correctly. So it may have had more to do with what you call out, Donna -- absence of depth and complexity in the characters' emotions.

  2. I agree, Sharon, that somehow I never got the true sense of the danger Watney was in. I mean, intellectually I knew he could die at any moment, but I didn't really feel it. Laurie may see it differently, though. :-)

  3. I think the airlock blow out scene probably hammered home the danger more than his predicament overall, where he would "simply" die of lack of oxygen or lack of food. Not as exciting as having the explosion/cracked faceplate and being moments away for death if it weren't for the quick thinking application of duct tape.

  4. But yeah, it's hard to convey crisis when the character is the calm and collected sort, as astronauts tend to be.

  5. One of my favorite space films was the Danny Boyle film SUNSHINE. That film -- about a group of scientists on a mission to reignite the sun after an impact dims its light/warmth -- does a fabulous job (in my view!) of conveying the psychological aspects of a snafu in space. I felt there was a bit of a copout in the end, where a typical villain was brought into the story, but up to that point the film was thick with tension and a sense of peril. But that film feels a lot heavier than this one. It lacks the humorous aspect I really enjoyed in THE MARTIAN.

  6. Sharon, I've heard Sunshine recommended a couple of times and also heard it was SciFi, but the title sounded so ordinary I never gave it a look. Your description sounds intriguing! I'll have to check it out.

    1. Let me know when you do! I'd love to discuss it. I agree, the title doesn't do much for its appeal.


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