Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: The Martian

The Martian was written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott. It's based on the best selling novel by Andy Weir.

Goddard previously wrote the scripts for Cloverfield, Cabin In The Woods (which he co-directed with Joss Whedon) and World War Z, all films I liked quite a bit.

Scott of course has directed many blockbusters over the years, including ALIEN, Blade Runner, Legend, Thelma And Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down. He's been in a bit of a slump the past few years though, as he was responsible for directing Robin Hood (the Russell Crowe one), Prometheus, The Counselor and Exodus: Gods And Kings. Fortunately, The Martian is a return to form for Scott, and more than makes up for all of those.

Producer Simon Kinberg was originally set to adapt the novel into a film in March 2013. Kinberg is a very uneven writer, who's past work includes XXX: State Of The Union, X:Men: The Last Stand, Jumper, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Ouija and this summer's terrible, horrible, no good, very awful Fantastic Four. In May 2013, Drew Goddard was chosen to write the screenplay. Sounds like we dodged a bullet there.

Andy Weir, the author of the film, is a computer programmer who began writing the book in 2009. He studied orbital mechanics, astronomy and space flight in order to make the novel as realistic and scientifically accurate as possible. When no publishers wanted to buy the book, he put it on his website for free. At the request of his fans, he uploaded a Kindle version to Amazon (for 99¢) which sold 35,000 copies in a month. That finally got the attention of the publishing world, and Weir sold the book rights to Crown in March 2013 for $100,000.

At long, long last, we finally get a hard sci-fi movie with actual real science in it! Imagine such a thing! The Martian never dumbs itself down, and throws scientific concepts left and right at the screen, trusting the audience to keep up. It was refreshing to see a movie do that, especially in an age where films like Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 and Pixels are considered high art. It's awesome to finally see a movie that says it's cool to be smart.

This is the movie that Gravity and Interstellar SHOULD have been. I was expecting great things from both those films, but was bitterly disappointed when they featured far more fiction than science. 

Unlike those films, The Martian strives to get as much right as possible, and features scientists doing what they do best— calmly assessing a problem and coming up with a rational solution. None of the scientists in The Martian does anything overtly stupid, none of them fight among themselves, and they all work together to solve the problems thrown their way. 

They for damn sure never act like the scientists in Scott's dreadful Prometheus, who practically invited alien creatures to leap down their throats. And thank the Maker, no scientists in The Martian ever postulate that "love" is a tangible, physical force in the universe (I'm lookin' at you, Interstellar).

Whether this scientific realism is due to Ridley Scott or the source material I can't say, but kudos nonetheless.

The movie's science isn't 100% accurate of course, but it comes closer than any film I can think of. 

Naturally the novel is much more densely packed with science and technobabble than the movie. Kudos to Drew Goddard for streamlining the science while retaining the spirit of the novel. And for making the science reasonably understandable.

The Martian is very unusual in that there's no real villain in the film. NASA Director Teddy Sanders comes close, as he seems like he's going to be the heavy at the beginning of the film. Fortunately this isn't the case, as Sanders turns out to be a real person trying to do a difficult job, who's genuinely concerned with bringing Watney back alive.

Oddly enough the film is rated PG-13, but I counted at least three uses of the word "f*ck." I was under the impression that a PG rating allowed the filmmakers only one f*ck per film. I wonder how they got away with more?

One week before the premiere, NASA announced they'd discovered the existence of water on the planet Mars, no doubt giving the film a ton of free publicity.

Lastly, there are reports out there that some audience members believe The Martian is based on a true story. You know, because of all those manned missions we've sent to Mars. Sigh... we're very near the end of civilization.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Sometime in the near future, the Ares III manned mission to Mars is collecting soil samples and studying the red planet. When a sudden sandstorm hits the camp, astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is struck by debris and presumed dead. The storm forces Mission Commander Melissa Lewis to abort the mission and blast off, leaving Watney's body behind. Lewis and the rest of the crew begin the long journey back to Earth in their ship, the Hermes.

The next day, Watney wakes up on the surface of Mars and realizes he's been left behind (I was hoping he'd put his hands on his cheeks and do the "Home Alone" yell, but alas he didn't). He makes it back to the pressurized habitat and tends to his wounds. His communication equipment was destroyed by the storm, so he can't contact NASA and let them know he's still alive. He calculates it'll take at least four years for a rescue mission to reach Mars, but he only has enough food to last one year. In a habitat designed to last three months.

Watney, who's luckily a botanist, sets up a makeshift farm inside the habitat and begins growing potatoes. He reasons that he'll need to travel halfway around the planet to the planned Ares IV mission site in order to be rescued, and begins modifying the camp's rover for a long distance journey.

Back on Earth, a NASA technician studies Martian satellite photos, and seeing activity at the Ares III site, realizes Watney is still alive. NASA Director Teddy Sanders (played by Jeff Daniels) begins planning a rescue mission, but is reluctant to tell the Hermes crew, fearing it'll distract them from their mission.

Amazingly, Watney's potato crop is successful, allowing him to stretch his rations. He then locates the Pathfinder probe, which stopped working in 1997. He repairs it and uses it to contact Earth.

Sanders finally tells the Hermes crew that Watney is alive. NASA comes up with a plan to send an unmanned supply ship to feed him until the Ares IV mission can reach Mars and rescue him. Unfortunately the ship explodes shortly after takeoff. Disaster also strikes on Mars, when the airlock on Watney's habitat fails, destroying his potato crop.

The China National Space Administration is monitoring the situation, and offers NASA one of their classified rockets to help rescue Watney. Meanwhile a NASA tech has a different plan— use the Earth's gravity to slingshot the Hermes back to Mars at top speed, where they can rescue him. While NASA debates which course is best, Commander Lewis and the Hermes crew force the issue by sending the ship into the slingshot orbit.

Watney uses the rover to travel to the Ares IV site, where NASA has already sent key equipment ahead of the mission. Among the equipment is a launch vehicle. Watney strips it down in order to reduce its weight so it'll be able to achieve a higher orbit. He blasts off in the launch vehicle to rendezvous with the rapidly approaching Hermes.

Unfortunately Watney is too far away to reach the ship, so he punctures his glove, which creates an Iron Man-like means of thrust. He somehow manages to propel himself just close enough for Commander Lewis, who's in a space suit outside the Hermes, to grab him.

The film ends with Watney safely back on earth, teaching future astronauts.

Thoughts:
• OK, we all know how I love to point out scientific inaccuracies in films, so we might as well get it out of the way.

As the film opens, the Ares III mission site is struck by a powerful windstorm that forces them to abort. Mars has an atmosphere, but it's very thin, about 1% that of Earth's. There's just no way a storm of that magnitude could ever happen. At most you'd get a slight breeze. Author Andy Weir even acknowledged this inaccuracy, saying he exaggerated the intensity of the storm because he needed some way to separate Watney from the rest of the crew.

One thing the film doesn't even attempt to portray is the lower gravity on Mars, which is about 38% that of Earth's. Watney should have been bouncing all over the place when he walked, much like the astronauts on the moon did.

Director Ridley Scott claims that the heavy space suit Watney wears in the film would bring his weight up to near normal, but even if that's true, his movements and stride would probably still look quite different. Plus he spends a good portion of the movie inside, without his spacesuit. So how to explain his seemingly normal weight in those scenes?

There were a few outdoor scenes in which it looked like they slowed down the film very slightly, to try and give it a more weightless look. It didn't work. I'm willing to overlook this one though, as it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to accurately depict low gravity for an entire movie.

The film also ignores the issue of radiation. Watney would have gotten quite a dose spending several hundred days on the surface of Mars. Since the film takes place a bit in the future, I suppose it's possible that his suit and the habitat was radiation shielded, but there's no mention of this.

• OK, now that I've dealt with two of the biggest inaccuracies, how about what it got right?

They depict the lack of gravity perfectly in the scenes on board the Hermes. The astronauts float weightlessly around the bulk of the ship, but spend a lot of time in the large central wheel, which spins to simulate gravity.

The orbital mechanics of actual space travel are dealt with in great detail. I didn't quite understand it all, but it sounded real to me and I trust that someone did all the math.

Space is big. Very big. Even our own solar system is big. In fact it takes messages between four and twelve minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (depending on the position of both planets). Amazingly the movie depicted this time lag, as Watney had to wait several minutes for a reply to his emails to NASA! Well done!

According to scientists, it really would be possible to grow crops in Martian soil, with the help of the bacteria in Watney's own personal fertilizer.

There are several outdoor scenes in which what appear to be tornadoes are visible in the sky. These are actually just dust devils, which really do form in the thin Martian atmosphere.

Watney creates water for his plants by extracting hydrogen from the habitat's supply of hydrazine and burning it. I don't quite understand that sentence, but from what I've read, it's possible.

• As the film opens, a massive Martian windstorm threatens to topple the Ares III lander, which looks like a large vertical rocket. The lander is actually forced to take off prematurely before it falls over.

I'm sure this is all scientifically accurate, but it seems like a design flaw to me. Maybe next time don't design a top heavy rocket that's in constant danger of being knocked over by wind.

• Regular readers of my blog are no doubt sick of hearing of my pet peeve about sci-fi movie dates. Very often a film will be chock full of futuristic technology, far beyond anything we have now, but will be set in the far off year of 2024. The producers then look like idiots in a few short years as their movie becomes hilariously dated.

The Martian neatly sidesteps this trap by avoiding any mention of the year. It's sometime in the future, when NASA routinely sends expeditions to Mars. That's all we need to know.

• After the disaster, Watney uses the habitat's toilet. There's a panel on the side of the toilet with the names of all the astronauts. He pushes the button with his name on it, and we hear the toilet process and seal his feces into an airtight bag. 

He then gets the bright idea to use all the accumulated feces to fertilize the Martian soil so he can grow crops. He opens a container in the side of the habitat, and it's full of individually wrapped poos, labeled with the names of the entire crew.

Um... so why were they separating and cataloging everyone's crap? At first I thought maybe he was only going to use his poop as fertilizer, since he'd be used to his own bacteria and wouldn't become sick on an alien planet. But later we see him using everyone's poo (even commenting on how bad some of it smells). 

Were they organizing everyone's crap in such detail because they planned to take it back to Earth and analyze the effect Mars had on it? 

Whatever the reason, it just seemed like an odd thing for the film to obsess over.

• Watney figures out a way to produce water by burning spare hydrazine. To do this, he needs material that will burn. Unfortunately NASA is very paranoid about fires, so everything in the habitat— even clothing and paper— are inflammable.

Fortunately for Watney, his crew mate Martinez left behind a contraband wooden crucifix, which he carves up and burns.

Good thing Watney found the wooden cross, or he'd have been screwed. Or would he? I can think of another flammable material he could have used— his own hair! He had an inexhaustible supply growing on his head and face.

• I really enjoyed the soundtrack, which consisted of 1970s disco music. Hey, I'm not ashamed to admit it, I like ABBA

Watney grumbles throughout the film about how the only music he has to listen to is disco, left behind by Commander Lewis.

OK, so it's kind of a funny scene, but I don't buy it for a minute. Right now we have iPods that can hold hundreds, if not thousands of different songs. Are you telling me this crew left Earth on an eight year round trip mission and only one person brought a handful of disco songs?

• China comes to the rescue! At first I thought this film was another case of Hollywood pandering to Chinese audiences, who have several billion dollars worth of ticket money in their pockets. I've been told though by my pal Ted Parsnips that the China subplot is actually in the book. OK, you're off the hook this time, Hollywood. But I'm watching you!

• There's a fun scene involving Sanders, Flight Director Mitch Henderson (played by Sean Bean), Annie Montrose (played by Kristen Wiig) and JPL employee Rich Purnell (played by Donald Glover). When discussing how best to bring Watney back to Earth, Purnell dubs the plan "Project Elrond." When Montrose doesn't understand the reference, Henderson explains that in The Lord Of The Rings, the Council Of Elrond met to discuss what to do with the One Ring.

Bean of course played Boromir in the Rings movies. Normally I'm not a fan of this kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink joke in films, but this one was actually funny.

• As the days go by, Watney realizes he's going to need to stretch his food, and begins rationing it. I was thinking that in reality he should be losing a ton of weight, instead of consistently maintaining Matt Damon's beefy frame. Just then there was a scene in which Watney emerges from a shower and looks positively skeletal. Well done, movie!

• In the book Watney suggests puncturing his glove so the escaping oxygen will propel him through space like Iron Man, allowing him to reach the Hermes. Commander Lewis nixes the idea, listing a dozen reasons why it won't work. Watney admits it was a joke.

In the film though, he actually goes through with it and punctures his glove. Amazingly though, it works.

The Martian features a very diverse cast, including Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Nick Mohammed, Eddy Ko and Chen Shu. But as a sign of our out-of-control politically correct times, that's apparently still not good enough. The Media Action Network For Asian-Americans criticized the film for casting white actress Mackenzie Davis as Mindy Park, who was Korean in the novel. The group was also unhappy that black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor played the Indian character Vincent Kapoor.

Jesus Christ! I get that there aren't enough roles for minorities, I really do, but this was far from an all-white cast, and it looked pretty goddamned diverse to me. What more do people want? Stop making mountains out of molehills.

• At the end of the film we see vast crowds of concerned citizens gathered in New York, London and Beijing, all watching Watney's dramatic rescue on giant outdoor screens. Oddly enough, it appears to be nighttime in all these cities! Whoops! This is a very common mistake that happens over and over in movies.

OK, maybe it could be nighttime in New York and London, as they're six or seven hours apart. But there's about twelve hours difference between New York and Beijing, so there's no way they could both be experiencing night at the same time.

The Martian is at long last, the scientifically accurate film we deserve. It's also one of the best films I've seen all year. I give it an A-.

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