Friday, October 2, 2015
The Martian 
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review
RogerEbert.com (M. Zoller-Seitz) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review
The Martian  (directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by Drew Goddard based on the novel [GW] [WCat] [Amzn] by Andy Weir [wikip] [GR] [WCat] [Amzn]) is an uneven, if generally inclusive (though I don't think the Russians will be particularly happy with the film...) near-future sci-fi epic about a largely U.S. led, with some European involvement (there's a German astronaut as part of the crew), manned mission to Mars, where after 18 days on Mars' surface something goes terribly wrong:
A martian sandstorm brews-up suddenly and the crew has to quickly evacuate the planet.
In the chaos of getting to the craft that would take them back into orbit, one of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), is knocked down by debris (which turns out to be a piece from their base's dish antenna...) and his "smart space suit" reports to the others that his space suit had been breached. Unable to see / locate where he'd be lying and with dust and debris flying about everywhere, putting their return vehicle increasingly in peril, the mission commander on the ground, astronaut Melissa Lewis (played by Jessica Chastain) makes the call to launch without him.
Of course, Watney turns out not to be dead. Yes, he had been partly impaled by a rod from the back of said "dish antenna" but between his own blood and the piece of the debris that had impaled him, the two actually sealed the hole in his suit. So, he did not die ... but ...
... now he found himself alive on the planet and apparently with no means of communicating with either earth or his crew-mates still presumably orbiting (for a while anyway) above him.
What to do?
Well, first and foremost with basic medical supplies left at the living / working quarters of the small base (still more or less intact) where he and the other five astronauts -- the previously mentioned commander Lewis along with pilot Rick Martinez (played by Michael Peña), German mission specialist Alex Vogel (played by Aksel Hennie), computer specialist Beth Johanssen (played by Kate Mara) and Chris Beck (played by Sebastian Stan) -- had largely residing during their sojourn on surface of the red planet, he quickly stitches himself back together.
He then had two problems, (1) he had to figure-out how to re-establish contact with ... ANYBODY (his crew-mates / EARTH) ... and (2) realizing that this was probably not going to be easy, he has to figure out how to first stretch and then even grow his own food.
Now to be honest, I don't quite understand why reestablishing communication was going to be such a problem. We are told in the film that that the Mars base itself was constructed by means of MULTIPLE (unmanned) mission sending down supplies that would be needed by the astronauts when they arrived. This would mean that there would be MULTIPLE sets of communications gear leftover from those previous unmanned missions that he could cannibalize, if need be, to get a signal out to his crew-mates / earth. And then I'd find IT HARD TO BELIEVE that a MANNED NASA MISSION (AND THEN TO MARS !!!) WOULD SOMEHOW DEPEND ON A _SINGLE_ "DISH ANTENNA" for communications. Even NASAs unmanned probes flying to the outer planets were ALWAYS designed with MULTIPLE communications devices. Perhaps one would be "preferred" but there were always back-ups (and sometimes, as with the Galileo / Cassini missions, the backups ended up being the communications means primarily used).
But we're being asked to accept here that Watney found himself alive / alone on Mars and (and at least initially) with _no means_ to communicate with Earth and his crew-mates. Of course, he eventually finds a (rather ingenious) way ... re-establish contact.
Now what was happening on Earth? Initially, NASA assumes that Watney is dead and NASA chief Teddy Sanders (played by Jeff Daniels), flanked by his "Mars Missions" head Vincent Kapoor (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Press Secretary Annie Montrose (played by Kristen Wiig) announces this to the world.
But, after about twenty days, comparing martian satellite photos of the area around the base, NASA image analyst Mindy Park (played by Mackenzie Davis) discovers clear indication that Watney is still alive -- as someone seems to be moving around the base's rover/truck. What now? The rest of Watney's crew is already on its way back to earth. Over the next several days / weeks, NASA officials mission specialists observe Watney apparently methodically working out a plan that they discover _could_ actually help him re-establish contact with them. Without getting into details (spoilers) here, he succeeds ...
Okay, they've re-established contact, and soon, of course, the whole of NASA and especially the JPL, including a team led by NASA engineer Bruce Ng (played by Benedict Wong) are helping him "with the day-to-day." They are absolutely amazed that Watney's figured out a way to grow food (make soil, MAKE WATER to WATER SAID SOIL) on Mars. And in a similar spirit, they help him improve his day-to-day life even more. But ...
... none of this would help much in the end, if they couldn't assemble some kind of a plan to rescue him. That then becomes the rest of the movie. The Chinese provide assistance as well (and pointedly NOT the Russians ... not because the Russians would be hostile, but presumably because they'd be for some reason "irrelevant"...). [Apparently in Hollywood's calculations, China's movie market would larger than Russia's and, well, presently we find ourselves in something of a "mini Cold War II" with Russia ...].
Much still has to happen, and ... recognizing that this is a Hollywood movie and one that involves NASA "can do" spirit (even if we don't seem to fund NASA to do much of anything anymore ...) ... So without too much of a spoiler, let's just say that the story ... (has to) ... end well.
Now clearly there are many positive even salutary aspects to the film. The CGI is spectacular (!) and NASA's (previously) famous "can do" ethic / ingenuity certainly shines through. But ...
Still, I found the scenario flawed at time even incredible on multiple levels:
(1) even the "initial emergency" seems exaggerated to me, a martian sand storm that would be so strong that the crew would have to evacuate (LAUNCH DURING A SAND STORM ...) immediately,
(2) I find it next to impossible to believe that Watney would really find himself initially _completely_ out of contact with NASA (again, one would assume that there'd be all kinds of redundant communications (!) systems built into the mission planning,
(3) If a martian storm could really knock-out ALL of Watney's communications gear, then it could certainly do even more damage than that (Watney would have almost certainly found his living quarters breached or otherwise destroyed),
(4) Where was Watney's family in the picture? Or really any of the other families? ... There are some references to the other families, but NOT NEARLY ENOUGH to be realistic. Portrayed in the film was a NASA mission which had a lot go wrong with with it. There would be family members from all the astronauts' families who would have become REGULAR FIXTURES on all kinds of Cable TV / Cable News networks before the story completely played itself out.
So while there are good aspects to the film, I'm disappointed by the final result. Yes, the film tries to be optimistic, and that's good / great. But there are just too many things, technical, human, even geopolitical, that just don't seem right ... sigh.
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