Good Space Hunting: Boy Genius Matt Damon is Back and Better Than Ever in ‘The Martian’

I’d like to start this article off with a few disclaimers. Firstly, as I’ve said before, I’m all in on Matt Damon, all the time. His recent appearance on the Late Late Show just enforced what I already knew: Matt Damon is always peak Matt Damon. Grantland foolishly said that Affleck has the upper hand on Damon a year or so ago, and even if Affleck seems to be riding high, you can’t top almost 2 decades of greatness. That said, I have openly lamented the lack of likable Damon on my screen over the last year or two. His Interstellar character was a heel. Luckily for us, although astronaut (and badass botanist) Mark Watney is also stranded on an arid planet, he does not share Dr. Mann’s distastefully smug persona. Rather, Mark Watney is a truely likeable survivalist, and Matty boy pulls out a vintage performance sure to garner him an Oscar nom.

Disclaimer 2: I didn’t like Interstellar very much. It was entirely too self serious and convoluted, in spite of its semi-heartwarming ending. I would’ve walked out of the movie entirely when McConaughey was yelling “MURPH” from behind a 5th dimension bookshelf if the seatbelt sign wasn’t turned on. I was nervous, especially based on Ridley Scott’s prior epics, that this movie would have the same lack of humor as Interstellar.

Fortunately, I had no reason to fear. This movie wasn’t some space opera wrapped up in a world of its own creation. Rather, it was a truly nail biting story of survival.

By now you know the setup. Mark Watney is an astronaut on a mission to Mars led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain). He, along with his crew (played admirably by Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and a delightfully goofy Michael Pena), get caught in a sandstorm, and in the confusion Watney is presumed dead and left behind. He awakes a day later, with a pipe in his stomach and supplies for something like 60 days. After a few hours of sadness, he makes a bold claim. “I’m not going to die here”. The big issue, other than his injury and the fact that he’s alone on Mars? A manned mission can’t go back to get him for 4 years. Oh, and nobody knows he’s alive. How does one man make a few months of food last for years? Science the shit out of it, of course.

Watney awakens in the sand on Sol 19, and over the next 500 odd days the movie explores his inner turmoil and fierce determination to stay alive. Luckily for everyone involved, Watney is as charming and funny as he is whip-smart. He’s a botanist by trade, and in his quest to stay alive, he declares that ‘Mars will come to fear my botany powers’. By the time he starts to use his own shit as manure for potatoes, we are in awe of this remarkable man, one who manages to stay resilient and witty in the face of the harshest adversity imaginable. We learn about his life on the planet primarily through his video-diary voiceovers, which thread life-threatening dilemmas into light hearted jokes and optimistic thinking. Though we fear for Watney and his almost certainly fatal situation, we never pity him because he doesn’t want us to. He’s everything you want to be as a human being, and the best part is that he IS distinctly human. He curses, he gets frustrated, he complains about little things like the music selection available in the HUV, and he even watches episodes of Happy Days to pass the time. Unlike a lot of movies nowadays (Legend comes to mind) you never check your watch for the time. You could watch Space Crusoe tinker for hours without tiring.

Fear not though, if you aren’t as big of a Damon fan as I am. The movie spends a considerable time down on Earth with the big dogs. Jeff Daniels is initially tough to like as NASA Director Tommy, but it quickly becomes clear there is no true villain in this movie. It’s a real story about people from all over coming together to save one man. Washington, the Bay, China, Space, it doesn’t matter! By the time program head Vincent Kapoor (an Indian character played in a bizarre turn of events by Chiwetel Ejiofor),  and satellite tech Mindy find out Watney is alive, we’ve been introduced to a full range of science geeks, media types, and conflicted political cogs, all played with varying degrees of importance by a really phenomenal cast that includes Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean. Even Donald Glover shows up! Even if he doesn’t have more than what amounts to a glorified cameo, his character is quirky and essential, and just adds another to the many many reasons to see the movie. The dichotomy between Watney’s barebones life on Mars and the hoops our NASA friends must jump through to save him provide a great narrative structure to the film, and ensure that we never feel as if we’re spending too long in one place. Throw that in with the incredible aerial shots of Mars (I would love to know how they did all the scenery) and you’ve got an instant classic, and a top contender for Best Picture.

Ultimately, this is a huge win for Damon, Ridley Scott, and honestly, everyone involved in the movie. Damon delivers his first great movie since True Grit’ and Scott bounces back from the wreckage of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. Critics love it because of the performances and direction, audiences love it because it’s entertaining, and even NASA loves it because it is, as British physicist Brian Cox said, “The Martian is the best advert for a career in engineering I’ve ever seen.” I’m the farthest thing from an engineer, and even I wanted to go build something after watching this movie. It’s a thrill-ride from start to finish, and unlike most of Damon/Watney’s comments in the film, there is no ‘rub’. The Martian stands high as a testament to the idea that a movie doesn’t need a twist ending. You can know exactly how a film will end and not care that it goes there, because the real treat of filmmaking isn’t hiding the conclusion. The reason we watch movies is to experience the journey TO the ending. So how do I feel about this movie? Well, Ridley Scott made the shit out of it.

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