It isn’t often that the landscape of a motion picture becomes as integral as the acting, writing or direction, but in the newest Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”) outer space adventure, The Martian, the planet’s crimson hues, frozen nights and horrifying sand/dust storms bring the story of an explorer stranded there with little help of survival to full life. This is in no small part due to the work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” as well as the upcoming “The Walk”) and company. We often feel the plight of the victim right in the pit of our stomachs.
Even the origins of this film are interesting in and of itself. It began as a novel by computer software engineer Andy Weir, but no publishing company seemed interested until he began releasing parts of it on the Internet. Soon Crown Publishing came calling and the book became a bestseller. Now 20th Century Fox is bringing out the film, starring Matt Damon (“Interstellar”), Jessica Chastain (Academy Award-nominated for “Zero Dark Thirty”) and Jeff Daniels (the horrible “Dumb and Dumber To”) and judging by early box office numbers, the movie is one of the must-sees as Hollywood officially kicks off its award season.
Here, a freak (but all too regular) storm seems to have killed botanist Mark Watney (Damon) on the surface of Mars. Believing him deceased and under NASA orders to abort the mission, his crew, led by Cmdr. Melissa Lewis (Chastain) blasts off leaving him there. Of course, as one can guess, Watney is very much alive as he was knocked unconscious during the massive Martian gale. After his shock of being injured and abandoned wears off, however, he figures he has enough food and water for less than a year on the red planet. “I’ve got to ‘science’ the shit out of this,” he intones to himself and, as a botanist, he finds a way to grow potatoes in soil that seems to be inhospitable.
Through clear-thinking problem solving and a little knowledge of chemistry, he even finds a way to produce enough water for him and the crop to survive. Still, he needs to be able to communicate with Earth or the whole point is moot.
Realizing that an original Pathfinder communication device from 1997 is buried near the next mission’s landing site still exists, he uses the rover to move the satellite system back to his hab (geek speak for habitat). Meanwhile, NASA, led by Teddy Sanders (Daniels), has officially declared Watney dead and sent him off with the proper honors back home. It comes as quite a shock then when everyone realizes he is still alive.
This is especially true of his crew, Lewis, Rick Martinez (Michael Peña, “Ant-Man”), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara, “Fantastic Four”), Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie, “Hercules”) and Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”), who volunteer to postpone their trip home in an effort to return and rescue their comrade. Like the 1995 classic space film, “Apollo 13,” it’s the people behind the scenes who come up with the information and figure out the complex mathematics to bring Watney home. This time, it’s a group of Chinese scientists who aid NASA engineers such as Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean, “Jupiter Ascending”), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”), Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis, “That Awkward Moment”) and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, “The Lazarus Effect”), among others. Call it “Revenge of the Nerds,” if you like, but it shows the day is not always saved by the fighters; sometimes the thinkers get their day in the sun, as well.
Weir told reporters he wanted the book and consequently the movie to be as scientifically accurate as possible. Thus, questions such as how much energy would a Mars rover need to cover the great distances Watney must drive needed answers. And as he found the answers, he also created new problems for his astronaut to surmount. His stranded astronaut has little angst or other motivations, here. Watney simply pushes forward, putting crises aside and figuring out just how to survive. All in an environment that is barren and unforgiving (we see this as he tries to repair a hole in the hab with plastic covering and duct tape; and then sits in fear as a wild Martian wind tries to rip it apart. Even on the brink of rescue, nothing is easy and miscalculations, as well as just plain dumb bad luck doom that enterprise.
Scott, who flopped with the visually-stunning, but soulless “Prometheus,” nonetheless transformed science fiction cinema with “Blade Runner” and “Alien.” He downplays the high drama (and otherworldly monsters and other threats) and allows Damon to realize the enormity of his plight; the extreme dread that will automatically flow from the vast loneliness of the landscape. With brief exceptions, that is how he plays the character. It’s one which is layered and complicated, but very matter-of-fact and could well provide the actor with his third acting Oscar nomination. As for the overall work, The Martian, like 2013’s “Gravity,” may be one of the smartest picture you will see all year, but it may also be one of the most thrilling and exciting two-plus hours you will spend in the multi-plex.