Politically incorrect film reviews – The Martian

Main cast

Matt Damon as Mark Watney (botanist, engineer)

Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, NASA spokesperson (Director, Media Relations)

Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders, Director of NASA

Michael Peña as Major Rick Martinez, astronaut (pilot)

Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, astronaut (system operator, reactor technician)

Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, Hermes flight director

Sebastian Stan as Dr. Chris Beck, astronaut (flight surgeon, EVA specialist)

Aksel Hennie as Dr. Alex Vogel, astronaut (navigator, chemist)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director

Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist

Benedict Wong as Bruce Ng, director of JPL

Director Ridley Scott

Imagine Robinson Crusoe without  a Man Friday  and stranded on another planet  rather than a deserted island  and you have the plot of The  Martian in a nutshell.

Botanist Mark Watney ( Matt Damon)  is part of  the Ares III mission  which has landed on Mars and set up a temporary base there. A dust storm blows up while the crew are out on the surface and Watney is hit by some flying debris. The rest of the crew are sure he is dead, but they also have a major danger  to distract them from searching for him: the dust storm is threatening to blow over the rocket that  will take them back to their orbiting Hermes  spaceship. If the rocket topples over the crew will be stranded on Mars.   Consequently, they make an emergency take off  without Watney, get safely to the Hermes and  head  for Earth.

But Watney is not dead. He has been injured by  the flying debris,  but not mortally. The facility which sheltered the crew on Mars, the Hab, is still functioning  and there is a large Mars rover vehicle intact.  Watney sits down in the Hab and does  exactly what Crusoe does, takes an inventory of what he has then sets about working himself out of the monumental hole he is in.  This he achieves  in a series of   ingenious ways   including, again mimicking  Crusoe , by scavenging equipment  from  wrecks, in this case  from abandoned equipment  left  from previous missions, manned and unmanned, to  Mars.

Most of the film  is taken up with Watney’s efforts  to overcome  one daunting  obstacle to surviving  after another long enough to have any chance of rescue.  He starts from the bleak  point of knowing that NASA  think that he is dead.  Hence his   first need is to establish contact with Earth to let them know he is alive.  He eventually does this  by cleverly  tinkering with equipment  intended for other things until eventually he has an email  link with NASA.

After making contact with NASA,  Watney’s  most pressing problem is  having enough food   to last long enough to keep him alive until Earth can attempt to rescue him. It will take several years to send another spaceship to Mars and Watney  has food for nothing like that long. Luckily he is a botanist so he works out a way of producing water and this,  with the excrement from the astronauts acting as fertiliser, allows him to grow potatoes inside the Hab with sufficient success  to allow him to survive for considerably  longer but not long enough for the next Mars expedition, Aries IV, to arrive and save  him.

While Watney is problem solving on Mars NASA is problem solving on Earth and meeting with disaster. Their attempts to   launch an unmanned rocket with extra supplies to allow Watney to survive until Aires IV can get there  ends in disaster and all looks lost.  But eventually  the Aries III mission ship Hermes ship is re-provisioned a in space and then turned around on its flight to Earth and sent back to Mars to rescue Watney. This is done only with the help of the Chinese (note the glib  internationalism and/or kotowing to the Chinese).

After further adventures including a disaster with the Hab and a long ride across the Martian surface in the Mars Rover the film culminates in a hair raising exercise to rescue Watney. Does he make it? Well, you will need to see the film to discover that.

Damon’s performance as Watney  recaptures  the engaging boyishness of his early films like Goodwill Hunting and Rounders.   He is also decidedly funny. Without him the film would be pretty dull,  for apart from Damon the plot involving the rest of the cast is rather predictable and even those with  the larger parts such as Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders,  the Director of NASA and Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis,   the Ares III Mission Commander, are distinctly one-dimensional.  Sean Bean is horribly miscast as Mitch Henderson the Hermes flight director speaking what lines he has with as much verve as a speak-your-weight-machine .

The Martian has been criticised in some quarters for Damon’s role being too comic.  That is a mistake. Whether  or not someone in such a desperate and isolated position  would be able to maintain such an upbeat  persona with the sense of both his utter physical isolation and desperate circumstances  pressing upon him is of course debatable . But that is to miss the point. The same objection could be levelled at Robinson Crusoe.  But in both cases what counts is whether there is a good story to be told and in both cases the answer is yes.   Moreover, the attitude of Watney  is that of those with the  “right stuff”, an epitome of American can do. Nor is he  utterly alone for most of the film. To keep him sane  he has his contact with Earth for most of the time and eventually  the Aries III ship Hermes . He also records his progress on a video blog, something which would provide a sense of purpose.   It is Boy’s Own stuff but none the worse for that. Nor is it  utterly unbelievable. Think of the tone of the diaries kept on Scott’s doomed return from the South Pole or the resolution of the crew on Apollo 13 after an oxygen tank  exploded  two days into the mission and crippled the spacecraft.    Boy’s Own behaviour is found in real life.

The  depiction  of Mars is unnecessarily sloppy.  It  looks convincing as far as the scenery is concerned, but  there are   anomalies. The gravity on Mars is one-third of that on Earth yet when Damon moves around  there is no  indication of this  in his  walk ,which one would expect to be at least mildly bouncing. Nor when Damon moves things does he do so with unexpected ease as one would imagine he should with only one-third Earth gravity.   Then there is the atmospheric pressure which is around  one-hundredth of the on Earth. Would the storm which causes the Aries Mission  crew to leave really have had the energy to hurl debris as violently as it did or threaten to knock the rocket over?  The answer is no because it is the density of atmosphere which provides the “weight” behind a dust storm. On Mars the dust storm would be a  breeze not a hurricane.  As the dust storm plays a significant role in the plot this is not a small thing.

For politically correct casting  fans The Martian provides a feast.  The commander of the Aries II mission is a woman; the Chiwetel Ejiofor is  Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director, Benedict Wong is  Bruce Ng, director of JPL and there  are ethnic minority and female  bodies all over the place in the NASA control room scenes.  Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist, s the whizz kid who produces  the maths which allows the  Hermes to turn round and head back to Mars is black.  (The overwhelmingly  white  and male  reality of NASAtoday  can be seen here).

Despite its flaws  the film  is genuinely  entertaining.  You will not leave the cinema feeling you have wasted a couple of hours.

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