Monday, February 1, 2016

Oscars 2016: The Martian

The Martian (U.S., 2015) directed by Ridley Scott, 141 minutes
Nominated for Six Oscars:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Matt Damon)
Sound Editing
Production Design
Visual Effects
Adapted Screenplay

Matt Damon, in explaining the appeal of this film, has said that audiences often enjoy watching super smart people solve problems. If so, this is the film for you.

Set two decades from now, in 2035 ... the Ares III manned mission to Mars gets caught in a dust storm forcing the crew to abandon the surface of the planet. Astronaut Mark Watney (the ever likeable Matt Damon) gets lost in the storm and is knocked unconscious. Fearing that he is dead, the crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leaves him behind.

When Watney awakens, he returns to the crew’s living quarters and begins a video diary. By his calculations, the crew would only be able to return in four years at the earliest. Watney, a botanist, calculates that he may be able to survive in the meantime by creating a farm with Martian soil utilizing toilet waste, hydrogen extracted from rocket fuel (which has been oxidized by burning), and leftover potatoes that had been saved for a Thanksgiving meal for the astronauts. I think you will be surprised how interesting it is to watch a sexy astronaut grow potatoes on Mars to a series of rousing disco tunes - these were favoured by his commanding officer Melissa Lewis.

Back on earth … in reviewing satellite photos of Mars, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Mars mission director, discovers that Watney has survived. A decision is made not to inform the Ares III crew which is on its way back to Earth on the Hermes spacecraft.

Watney establishes communication with NASA on earth (don’t ask me how but it was elaborate and ingenious). A space probe is prepared for Mars to give Watney additional supplies until Ares IV returns. A series of mishaps ensure the audience’s suspense – the tenuous potato crop is destroyed, the supply probe explodes after lift-off. Have no fear, the Chinese government, ever sympathetic to the West, is on the horizon with a solution to help retrieve the American astronaut.

Several plot factors are at work here that are particular to American cinema – the concept of international cooperation to save one lone, lonely but plucky American; a feisty crew defying the orders of NASA not to return to Mars despite the possibility of death, the ingenuity of said astronauts. The crew on the Hermes vote unanimously to return to Mars’ orbit to try and retrieve their comrade. They do, of course they do.

That’s what I love about the American spirit – effortlessly optimistic, narrowly focused, always successful in whatever hare-brained scheme they devise. And that’s what I dislike about it too. As if everything should work out merely because there exists this burning American desire to triumph against all odds.

I did enjoy the film - the effects were spectacular, the acting consistently good (although I think Kristen Wigg is wasted here – any “basic white girl” would do in this role). But what was the point of the film, the larger goal? That Americans can do anything? That the human spirit is indomitable? That even mere earthlings with good old American gumption can vanquish space? Yeah, I’ve seen that movie too. 

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