The Martian (2015); d. Ridley Scott

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I won’t write a full review (although will point you to Matt Zoller Seitz’s thoughtful and insightful review over at Rogerebert.com), but I did just want to say how much I loved the film, and to recommend seeing it in a movie theatre before it leaves the big screen. It should be seen BIG.

Its devotion to science and figuring-shit-out makes it like Castaway, or All Is Lost, any film that features a solitary performance by a man trying to survive, through his critical thinking skills, his know-how, and his ability to problem-solve in the middle of a life-and-death situation. (I love such stories. I can’t help but put myself in the situation: Would I be able to figure shit out, or would I just lie down and wait to die?)

There is so much to praise (the effects, the story itself: Botany as Heroism, for example), but I couldn’t help but just be so taken with and amazed by Matt Damon’s performance, because let’s remember, the majority of the movie he is all by himself. He plays every single scene by himself. This is like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, or Sam Rockwell in Moon. (I guess one has to go into outer space to experience true solitude.) Every scene has its own energy and thrust (he must do this, he must try this now, he must fix this, he has an idea!!, he tries to accomplish things), and with each scene, each obstacle, each triumph, the character goes through the full spectrum of emotions.

In an emergency there is just too much to DO to take the time to cry, or feel self-pity. You’re trapped in a fire, you RUN, you don’t pause for a second and think, “Oh my God, it is so unfair that I am trapped in a fire. Why me.”

Damon is awesome. His journey, his emotions, his sheer intellectual power, were as thrilling as any action-figure who survives through his physical strength and Rambo-ish fortitude. This guy is a scientist. His brain is the thing that will possibly save him.

My friend and I sat huddled in our seats, laughing, tearing up, saying shit like, “Oh my God, please let this work” or exclaiming, “Oh no!”

A thrill ride. An intellectual thrill ride. Anchored by Damon’s great performance.

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18 Responses to The Martian (2015); d. Ridley Scott

  1. Todd Restler says:

    Great film, and MZS’ review really nailed it. I liked how there was really no “bad guy”, no paint by numbers government official mucking things up for the sake of artificially creating “conflict”. Everyone was just trying hard to do their jobs. I also liked how the Chinese were crucial to the rescue.

    I’m glad Matt pointed out Donald Glover’s Rich Purnell, “a brilliant but eccentric young scientist who lives so deep inside his own head that he doesn’t know the NASA director’s name. ” Great little character.

    Matt also makes a great point about Ridley Scott’s talent for allowing actors to have believable “banter” and workplace chatter. Going all the way back to Alien and Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, this is a very underrated element of Scott’s film making and really helps ground his films with a realism that is unexpected.

    Damon was amazing. Like Redford in All is Lost or Hanks in Cast Away, he really has to carry the movie, and his character is so funny, smart, and clever while at all times seeming human and not in any way like an “action hero”. Great job anchoring things. And even though he played a character in a very similar situation in Interstellar ( I loved that movie too in a very different way), his character here could not be more different then the one in that movie. Damon is a much better actor than I think he is usually given credit for. Ever see The Informant!? Guy has sneaky wide range.

    It is so interesting to simply watch people problem solve in a life or death situation. I am with you Sheila, I have such a visceral reaction to these types of films.

    My only minor quibble with the film is that it is so focused on Damon’s character solving one life threatening problem after the next that it doesn’t spend much time pausing to show how he deals with the boredom and isolation. He is shown watching an episode of Happy Days in one scene. I wanted to know more. How did he see that episode? Does he have the whole series? Does he have any other TV shows, movies, books, a deck of cards? How does he pass the long hours when he is not actively working on a problem. He was up there for years. The psychological toll of that experience is really interesting but the movie wasn’t too concerned with that aspect of things.

    Like I said, small complaint. This was an awesome piece of film-making.

    • sheila says:

      Todd –

      Yes, I loved the element of the Chinese, grappling over whether or not they should hold their innovation back … but then finally deciding to share the knowledge. Great perspective – especially on science, which is an international boundary-less kind of thing (although obviously it is used for political ends all the time.)

      Danny Glover was so great in Magic Mike XXL too in a completely different kind of role. A smooth sexy ray-of-light, peaceful and philosophical about being a stripper – supportive. He only has the one scene (well, he comes back for the final show) but he made such a huge impression. I was so happy to see him again in The Martian and yes, he was great. Loved the pratfall after he woke up.

      • Todd Restler says:

        “Pratfall” was unscripted apparently, he just wiped out on the wet floor and they kept the shot in!

        • sheila says:

          Boom! Down he goes, below frame. Hilarious.

          If you haven’t seen Magic Mike XXL (and if not, why not? Only partially kidding. It’ll definitely be on my Top 10 this year, along with Phoenix. Those two are locked-in.), he’s wonderful in that too. So sweet, comfortable in his own skin, charming. Picture the contrast to the guy in Martian.

          Good for him for getting these weirdo unique roles.

          And that he has no idea who the head of NASA was. hahahahaha

    • sheila says:

      In re: Damon: Yes, I think he’s great!! You rarely catch him “acting.” He’s naturally funny, naturally intelligent – but this is such a challenge because there’s no co-stars!! When he squeezed his face up with emotion at the first time he made contact with earth … so good!!

      I also loved Jessica Chastain’s breathed-out line, “I love it!!” when her husband/boyfriend showed her he bought Abba’s double-album on vinyl. So human.

      // It is so interesting to simply watch people problem solve in a life or death situation. I am with you Sheila, I have such a visceral reaction to these types of films. //

      There’s something that touches such a human chord in them. Matt mentioned Robinson Crusoe, the example that all of these stories follow. I think they reach out to that fear/dread/pity/terror thing that the Greeks talked about so much in the concept of catharsis. It is impossible to distance yourself. You wonder how you would hold up. What would you do?

      I just watched again “Islands in the Sky,” one of my favorite John Wayne movies, and one that isn’t really as well known as his others. In it, he plays the pilot of an Army Transport Plane – one that goes down into the middle of a snow-field up in the Arctic Circle. He’s got a small crew – just four other men. It’s 40 below zero. So one part of the film is these guys’ working the problem: how to get food, how to keep warm, how to keep mentally sharp – and also how to figure out how to get a message back to the base (there are issues with batteries running low and they want to conserve that energy).

      On the other side of the film shows all of the other Transport pilots – many of them on leave with their wives, or their floozy girlfriends – who drop everything and head back to Base, to start a search and rescue. You get to know all these guys. They’re all different. Many of them are not really likeable – yet they are determined to fly out into that circle of white, thousands of miles across, and try to find one of their own.

      Similar to The Martian: the film focuses on the technological know-how that one must have in such situations. Or, at least it shows that these people don’t have the time to shed tears or panic – they’re too busy trying to figure out how to block out the radio-waves from the gigantic Montreal radio station so they could hear what else might be going on out there, any Morse code SOS messages that might be coming through. Directed by William Wellman, with astonishing flying sequences – it’s a two-part story. It’s a race against the clock.

      And back with John Wayne and his crew: one of the men falls apart, and keeps thinking about his new-born baby at home. Wayne has to be strong as hell to keep that guy on course. It says a lot about leadership, and what it takes to be a leader. No time for self-pity, no time for crying, keep that fire going, keep that generation going, etc. etc.

      I thrill to such stories!! And then of course there’s the moment where you have to make the big move to save your life. No more sitting around. Time to build a raft and take your chances out there in the ocean. Time to drive 5000 miles (or whatever) to the landing site on Mars. And that’s the thing, that’s the situation that cuts right into the core of humanity: The life force. We all want to live. In such a situation, bold choices are necessary – choices that may kill you. But the life force is stronger than the death force, because at least while you are alive, you have a chance.

      The Martian tapped into all of that!!

    • sheila says:

      And in re: your quibble:

      Have you seen Moon, with Sam Rockwell? Have we discussed that before?

      One of the reasons I loved Moon (and there are many reasons) was that it dealt with isolation – and how a man, on a space station on the Moon, handles being alone for three years. The beard. The models he builds of his home town. The wandering around aimlessly in his robe, he’s king of the walk, he doesn’t have to “dress up” for anyone – he’s like a hermit-hoarder, actually.

      I imagine you would have to do a TON in order to remain mentally sharp in such a situation. I think Damon’s video-diaries helped him – to talk things through as though it is a person.

      But yes, I agree: the focus of the film was on the problem-solving, mainly.

      • Todd Restler says:

        Islands in the Sky sounds awesome, I love how you’ve seen things like that and can make those references!

        I did discuss Moon with you here, what a great movie! Rockwell gave an amazing performance, really performances. And yes that movie was more interested in the psychological aspects of the experience.

        I’m not saying The Martian needed to be concerned with that, it was about what it wanted to be about, but the movie opened up the issue as soon as he started watching Happy Days. Before that I assumed he only had the Disco music. I immediately wanted to know what other entertainment options he had. It would have been better if they never brought up the issue.

        I’m being really nitpicky of course, I loved the movie.

        One more comment on Damon, I loved when he shaved before the potential reunion with his crew, he wanted to look presentable even though he hadn’t showered in years! Another great human moment, he played that sequence really well.

        • sheila says:

          So glad you saw Moon! Sorry, I forget which ones we’ve connected on. As a Rockwell lover, I was so happy to see him play ping-pong with HIMSELF.

          He’s actually in New York right now, onstage in Fool For Love and I’m going in a couple of weeks. This will be the second time I’ve seen him onstage – the first being as Stanley in Streetcar up in Williamstown – which was absolutely insanely great.

          But back to the issue at hand:

          Damon shaving to meet the crew brought tears to my eyes.

          I also loved the basic celebration of NERDS that was the movie – similar to Apollo 13, where those supposedly “square” guys in mission control – totally out of step with the flower-power 1960s-era going on around them – are total heroes, with their pocket protectors and slide-rules. Everyone else is rolling around in the mud at Woodstock, those guys are working a problem and saving lives.

          My favorite group of guys in The Martian were the engineer guys, re-building that pod – removing everything – having teleconferences, etc, trying to hook-up to Damon, etc. (One guy was a particularly poor actor – he had two or three lines and could barely make them sound believable, and my friend and I winced – you can feel awkwardness from the entire Tristate Area sometimes – but whatever, you can’t win ’em all). But I loved those guys in their warehouse the best. Harried, no sleep, impossible deadlines, moving shit around. I mean, they were the shlubs, right? The AV Club type of guy in high school. And they are literally the coolest guys on the planet because of what they can do, and how their minds work.

          It’s beautiful to me.

    • sheila says:

      and oops, trying to cover all of your comments:

      I so agree about the “workplace banter” aspect of Ridley Scott’s films!

  2. Melanie says:

    // (I love such stories. I can’t help but put myself in the situation: Would I be able to figure shit out, or would I just lie down and wait to die?)//

    I do this, too, Sheila, but I don’t love these movies so much because I’m afraid I would be in the lie-down-and-die category. I did, however love this movie even though I hyperventilated through most of it. I particularly loved his annoyance with the Captain’s disco music. What? Years in space and no one else had their playlist?

    • sheila says:

      But then he got sucked in and started dancing to “Hot Stuff” as he careened across the desert. SO FUNNY. Listen, disco gets under your skin – it is hopeless to resist! Tony Manero barging through the doors of the nightclub!

      // I’m afraid I would be in the lie-down-and-die category. //

      That’s exactly how I feel.

      I murmured to my friend at one point, “Well, now we know what to do if we’re stranded on Mars. We should be taking notes.”

  3. Melanie says:

    // Everyone was just trying hard to do their jobs. I also liked how the Chinese were crucial to the rescue.//

    Yes, Todd, there was a feel-good for Humanity element that felt very fresh compared to most modern films.

  4. Todd Restler says:

    Thanks Melanie. Yes there was something very refreshing about the way everyone truly worked together. The movie felt like a throwback in that respect. It is a feel good movie that earns it’s good feeling.

    • sheila says:

      I loved the crowd scenes of people gathered. It was very hopeful. I mean, that really happened when the Apollo 13 crew was stranded – people gathered all over the world to pray … Hopeful. The best of who we are.

  5. Jill V says:

    I highly recommend the book too. It really fleshes out the story

  6. alli says:

    A real movie star movie. Not many people could be watchable, by themselves, for that long. To keep his sense of humor and keep going with no one’s voice but your own? So so difficult. Even once he can communicate with Earth again, its still just texts. Thankfully he had enough stuff to do but goodness. How you don’t just roll over outta boredom!

    Loved it. Was so glad I saw it in the theater. Those vistas deserved a giant screen.

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