Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Martian" Review

Okay, I'll admit it: I've never watched a single episode of MacGyver. I'm almost afraid to do it at this point, considering how deeply woven into my code the ethic of the show has become.  I'm worried that the 80s cheese will taint that Mojo of Inventive Improvisation that so guides my approach to the problems that can so pretzel up my days.

Indeed, there have been times when, in the process of tackling one of those problems, I have arrived at a "MacGyvered" solution, using available materials (Madame 'Cyte frequently...errm...laments the heaps of bric-a-brac that I keep around, expressly for its utility as a pool of raw materials for such projects...till the moment when they allow me to construct --like a Master Builder in Lego World-- a Fix)...only to find a purpose-specific tool for the job...and experience actual disappointment over that, and the sudden obsolescence of my jury-rigged solution.

If that Moment rings any kind of bell in you, then you are just the sort of person who will groove HARD on "The Martian."

The novel --the first by engineer Andy Weir--  had sat in my Kindle queue for a couple of years, after it had been recommended to me by someone who'd read and enjoyed (and written a lovely review of) my novella, Night Music. She'd said that it bore strong affinities to my book, in its scrupulous attention to technical detail, its inventive use of technology, and its celebration of the human mind as a problem-solving engine. Naturally, I was intrigued (and more than a little flattered/honored to have communicated so successfully that she so clearly Got what I was going for). 

Finally read it over the Summer (before I found out that it had been optioned as a film, let alone  that it was nearing completion....with Ridley-Freakin'-SCOTT at the helm!)....and immediately re-read it as soon as I was finished (and I almost never do that). I was even MORE flattered/honored at the comparison!

As for the film....Yay. Just Yay.

As I say, this is not a movie that will speak with too loud a voice to those with not even a whisper of tech-geek in their souls. It is very faithful to the book, though with some notable exceptions which are all in service of making it work better as a film (successfully. The "Iron Man" beat comes most vividly to mind).  It moves at a deliberate pace. It explains many things (usually via the protagonist, Mark Watney's video log).  It sets up problems, establishes the stakes, and walks us through the solutions (and setbacks. OY! Such setbacks!).

The situation is that Watney --played superbly by Matt Damon-- finds himself left alone on Mars after his fellow crew members on an exploration mission need to abort very early, due to a terrible storm that jeopardizes the crew's ability to leave safely (gotta give a Mulligan here; the actual atmosphere on Mars is so thin that even a hurricane-speed wind would exert little more dynamic force than a stiff breeze at Earth-level atmospheric pressures. But whaddya gonna do; gotta tell a story here). While trudging to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) to evacuate to orbit, Watney is struck by a fragment of the high gain antenna and hurled into the Martian night, very plausibly killed in the process.

But, it turns out, he is not dead....but will be if anything breaks down, and when the food supply runs out.

So, as the trailers say, he's gotta "Science the shit outa this!"

And Science he does!  It is a JOY to watch him attack problems, inventorying his assets and liabilities (rather bigger column, that one), apply scientific principles in solving them, fail to be defeated by the odds and the obstacles, and maintain a wry, profane sense of humor about the whole affair (wait for the whole "Space Pirate" thing..).

All Hail Duct Tape. 'Nuff said.

One of the characteristics of Scott's films that most stands out is his eye for breathtaking visual design. This film is no exception.  The surface of Mars is rendered with heart-stoppingly stark, majestic beauty. Being something of a Mars Geek, I was impressed at how precisely the color palate of the 4th rock from the Sun is reproduced. "You Are There" doesn't begin to cover this! The space scenes are stunning, conveying the brain-melting vastness of the distances in every direction, while also preserving the paradoxically claustrophobic quality of hurtling through that Vastness in a succession of pressurized tin cans.

Probably set in the early 2030s, the technology is marvelously realistically designed. Things are functional and plausible, treated in the matter-of-fact way that tech is treated by real people (when was the last time that you described your computer as a "silicon-CPU information processing node?"). It was the little things: the big outboard thermal radiator vanes on the aft end of the mothership, Hermes, glowed orange while the ion engines were active (and those low-but-constant-thrust engines glowed a realistic arc-blue-white, with no dramatic flares like you'd see with chemical rockets). Also, things fell on the Martian surface at rates and on trajectories that accurately depicted what it would look like at .38-gee. Most folks wouldn't notice these things consciously, but the dividends in verisimilitude pay off quite nicely in the hind brain.

All of this visual and technological wizardry, however, would fall flat without recognizable people in its midst.  The character work in this film is highly effective in its deft, understated clarity. These characters come across as real individuals, into whose lives we have dropped at a critical time. Jessica Chastain's Cmdr. Lewis is someone who takes her job very seriously. She is wracked by leaving Watney behind, even as she clearly knows it was the only responsible choice. The conflict of these realities is at times heartbreakingly manifest in her performance.

The unfolding relationship between Kate Mara's Johannson and  Sebastian Stan's Beck comes across in a series of sweet, almost-imperceptible little beats. Michael Peña's Martinez is a good-hearted, wise-cracking natural counterpart to Damon's Watney.  The Earth-bound cast plays out the politics and practicalities of this extraordinary situation with a recognizable Truthfulness that makes no one the Villain (even Jeff Daniels' NASA Director has defensible motivations for choices that might otherwise have been turned into a stock "Gutless Bureaucrat" cartoon in a lesser script). Honorable mention goes to Donald Glover's Rich Purnelle, the brilliant, quirky, socially inept astrodynamics savant; his description of his rescue plan during the "Project Elrond" meeting (One does not simply walk to Mars...) was high-LARIOUS!

And Damon. Ah, Damon.  He simply LIVES in Mark Watney. It's like how I will never again read LOTR without seeing Viggo as Aragorn. He inhabits that character with such an unforced, real-to-the-marrow way that his voice will sound in my head when I eventually (inevitably) re-re-read The Martian. It's clear (as it actually wasn't in the book) that the wise-cracking persona is a defense against the Dread and Despair that it only very precariously holds at bay. His humanity is a stand-in for our own, speaking to the best aspects of how we might manage any analogously dire situation in which we might find ourselves.

Final note:  Of all the things I love about this film, perhaps the one that lies closest to my heart of hearts is the degree to which it non-preachily extols the virtues of learning and critical thinking as the means by which we can deliver ourselves from the atavistic Fears that lie within us. Lateral, creative thinking, fueled by an intelligent deployment of well-learned lessons about how things work in the 'verse are what allow us to transcend the shadows all around us. The bootstraps by which we can lift ourselves from even the deepest of pits are composed of well-tempered strands of neural fiber, honed by exposure to and flexible recombinations of the DNA of knowledge and logic, informed --but not dominated-- by emotion, intuition, and Love.

"The Martian" not only tells us how we can survive even the most desperate of straits...but why we can and must do so.

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