[Screen It]


(2015) (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi/Drama: An astronaut must contend with being accidentally left for dead on Mars by his crew that's abandoned the planet, all while those at NASA try to figure out a way to bring him home.
It's the eighteenth day of NASA's exploration of Mars led by commander Melissa Lewis (JESSICA CHASTAIN). When a sudden storm strikes and threatens to tip over their escape rocket, she and her crew -- Mark Watney (MATT DAMON), Rick Martinez (MICHAEL PENA), Beth Johanssen (KATE MARA), Chris Beck (SEBASTIAN STAN) and Alex Vogel (AKSEL HENNIE) -- try to make their way through the blinding storm at night. But a piece of debris strikes Mark and blasts him off into the darkness. Melissa desperately wants to find him, but with readings showing his pressurized suit was compromised, the others assure her he's dead and that they must lift off now.

They do and begin their multi-month trip back toward Earth, unaware that Mark survived the accident. After tending to his injury, and despite knowing the long odds against him and the years it would take before a rescue flight could get to him, he decides he's going to live as long as possible via his current provisions and any improvising he can cook up. With no initial way for him to communicate his status back to Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (JEFF DANIELS), with the guidance of his director of media relations, Annie Montrose (KRISTEN WIIG), announces to the world that Mark perished on the red planet.

But when satellite photos show odd movement around the presumably deserted Mars compound, Vincent Kapoor (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR), the director of the Mars mission, realizes Mark is still alive. And thus while the stranded astronaut improvises his survival, Sanders and the rest of his NASA team -- including NASA flight director Mitch Henderson (SEAN BEAN), JPL director Bruce Ng (BENEDICT WONG) and astrodynamics engineer Rich Purnell (DONALD GLOVER) -- try to come up with a way to send him provisions as soon as possible or, more boldly, figure out how to rescue him with Melissa's crew.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Earthlings and particularly those at NASA have long dreamed of sending a manned mission to Mars. Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles to achieving that. Compared to our relatively close moon that's been visited a number of times by astronauts, the solar system's fourth planet from the sun is, on average, around 140 million miles away. Considering the speed of the fastest available or potentially conceived manned spacecraft, it would take a long, long time to get there. Not to mention the billions and billions of dollars it would cost.

While not quite as expensive but likely still ending up in the upper eight to low nine figures, usually requiring hundreds and sometimes thousands of people on the team, and having start to delivery times measuring in years, movies about Mars have been made over the decades.

Aside from a handful of ones that ended up entertaining to some degree (like the original "Total Recall," even if it wasn't remotely scientifically accurate), however, most have not been that good. For example, compare the likes of "Mission to Mars," "Red Planet" or "Ghosts of Mars" to space movies set elsewhere such as "Gravity," "The Right Stuff" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the difference in artistic quality is off the charts.

Thankfully, that's likely going to change with "The Martian." Based on Andy Weir's self-published novel of the same name from 2011, the film is about an astronaut who ends up stranded on the red planet by himself when the rest of his crew believes he's died in a freak accident and they subsequently abandon Mars as a means of self-preservation during a bad storm.

That might sound like a modified version of the more than 50-year-old "Robinson Crusoe on Mars." And some will obviously compare it to "Cast Away" or, to a lesser extent, "All is Lost" where men must contend with being stuck alone in a desolate place while trying to figure out how to survive.

Yet, in design and stemming from all of the NASA related material, it's far more akin to Ron Howard's superlative "Apollo 13" about that lunar crew ending up stuck in space while the NASA folks down on terra firma tried to figure out how to get them home. Unlike "Castaway" that focused most of its time and story only on Tom Hanks' character and bookended that with scenes of him interacting with others, this one jumps back and forth between its two main settings.

And those would be scenes featuring Matt Damon as the astronaut stranded on Mars and the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover back on Earth using their big brains to come up with a course of action to get him provisions and maybe off the planet as well. And those are interspersed with scenes of Damon's crew (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie) headed back to Earth and then turning around to implement the unapproved rescue plan.

While the film has some intense scenes and an obvious sense of isolation, it doesn't have the immediate urgency of "Apollo 13" or the overall intensity of "Gravity." But it is a highly engaging piece of filmmaking, thanks a great deal to the overall everyman style likability that Damon brings to the role (some of which stems from his video journal recordings about his ordeal that not only explain some of the science behind his plans for survival, but also the protagonist's mindset).

Of great help is that scribe Drew Goddard's adaptation of Weir's source material is smart (and occasionally fairly funny) but not elitist or stuffy. And then there's the fact that director Ridley Scott is obviously quite comfortable helming "bad stuff happens away from Earth" sorts of tales (mostly notably with "Alien" and "Prometheus"). The only slight complaint I have is that some of the casting seems to have been done just to put recognizable (and thus bankable) faces on the screen (such as Kristen Wiig as the head of PR). And with so many characters in play in the three locations, few of them are afforded enough screen time or screenplay material to give them any sort of depth beyond what's seen on the surface.

But those are just minor quibbles in what's otherwise an entertaining and engaging piece of sci-fi, and a thankfully smart one at that. "The Martian" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed September 24, 2015 / Posted October 2, 2015

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