The Martian. (2015)
I came late to this film. I have never read the best-selling book it was based on, but I was aware that most people loved the film, and at least 99% of the reviews I read praised it highly. Yesterday, I had time for watching films, and this was the second one in a day, following ‘Detroit’. After ‘Red Planet’, ‘Mission To Mars’, and the forgettable ‘Ghosts of Mars’, I was a little Marsed-out, to be honest. I am also not a huge fan of ‘space mission’ films, as they usually follow a well-worn formula.
And here is that formula.
Space films formula.
1) A mixed bag of a crew; one funny character, at least two women, and one very brave person.
2) Loved ones left worrying at home, usually seen via some video link, or waiting nervously around Mission Control.
3) A NASA boss who breaks the rules to save his crew.
4) Or a NASA boss who refuses to break those rules, but one of his rebellious employees does.
5) A techy nerd who saves the day with a plan that nobody thinks can work.
6) Lots of ‘oh no’ moments, disasters followed by last-minute relief as plans work.
7) Someone gets left behind, or dies on the mission, and everyone blames themselves.
8) Oxygen almost runs out.
9) Space suits get punctured.
10) Something mechanical goes wrong, or an explosion. That means someone has to go outside the craft.
11) Someone drifts away, perhaps to be saved at the last second, or not.
12) There has to be a lot of cheering and high-fiving in the huge control room, as everyone stands up from their screens in delight as something good happens. That has to happen a lot.
Given the 12 rules of Space Films, what about this one?
It’s basically Robinson Crusoe on Mars, absent a Man Friday companion. Someone (Matt Damon) gets left behind, believed dead, during a tense escape from the planet during a storm. Lots of sad faces and some tears, as the survivors make the long journey back to Earth. But wait! He isn’t dead, as we the viewers discover. He uses all his skills and technical know-how to survive alone on Mars. He grows food (well, potatoes), adapts vehicles, works everything out systematically and mathematically, and just refuses to lay down and die. For our benefit, he keeps a video log, filling us in on all the details so we know what’s going on.
Back in the control room, nobody is jumping up and down, not yet anyway. Then a dedicated young woman spots a clue on the satellite images. Matt is using solar panels, and his vehicle is moving around too. Yay! He must be alive! Cue lots of standing up and cheering, high-fives, and huge relief. But hang on, they have told everyone he is dead, and a nation is mourning his loss. Oops! They need to come up with a plan to save him, as he has only so many days of food left, and Mars is a very long way, let’s face it.
Then Matt has another great idea. He digs up an old communication satellite, and gets it working in no time. Communication is established, hooray! More jumping and cheering, even more high-fives.
OK, sarcasm over.
When the film is ‘on Mars’, it is entertaining indeed. Damon’s efforts to grow food, repair things, and simply survive are all very believable, given that he is a strong person, physically and mentally, as well as being a tech-savvy qualified astronaut, and a skilled botanist. He holds the screen in his one-handed role, and we are all rooting for him, undoubtedly. Moments of tension are not overplayed, and even those expected disasters are low-key, and plausible. And a nice touch is that the only music left for him to listen to is Disco, and he hates Disco. But the other half of the film just follows that 12-point formula, and cannot seem to shake those Space Film tropes. And once it comes to the climax, they throw in everything mentioned in points 1-12, leaving nothing out, not one.
And that cheering and high-fiving in the control, room? Oh yes, lots of that. Lots.
Mars looks good, and Damon is on top form as Watney, the lone survivor. The technical stuff is explained so well, even I understood it. More importantly, I believed it was possible, whether it is or not. But some strange casting decisions really made me edgy. Sean Bean as a crumpled-looking English mission controller at NASA, (why?) Jeff Daniels playing the head of NASA as if he is the President of The United States. Jessica Chastain looks uncomfortable as the commander of the original mission, and Michael Pena just didn’t work for me as an astronaut, maybe because he has played so many wise-cracking cops, soldiers, or crooks.
It’s a film of two halves, in every way imaginable. But I only liked one half.