Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My New Favorite Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a nice reversal of the bloat that is becoming epidemic in most big-budget films— especially in Ridley Scott movies. Prometheus was a hyperactive terrier of a movie, bouncing all over the place, rabidly exploring scifi/horror ideas and abandoning them with equal speed. Exodus was The Bible by way of Lord of the Rings— a dark, heavy, over-art-directed movie that had big CG monsters in it. The Martian is simple and exhilarating— it sticks with a handful of characters and confines itself within the realm of believable science and physics. This last part makes this film sublime: for sci-fi geeks, seeing a film that does NOT invoke some magical frammis to get out of the 3rd act is… well, magical in itself.

Not much to say about the plot you haven’t heard: an expedition to Mars gets hit by a storm which forces them to depart to orbit— leaving one of the crew behind, presumed dead. He isn’t, and now Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to figure out how to survive alone until he is rescued. How he does it is never less than fascinating.

What makes the film work— aside from the clean direction and terrific casting— is the dialog. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard, a veteran of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Lost.” Those shows, especially “Buffy,” were known for their witty, fast-paced dialog. The dialog in The Martian isn’t fast-paced (you really need at least two people for proper dialog to happen) but Matt Damon’s naturally self-deprecating manner makes the witty asides Watney tells himself work very well. Humor relieves tension, and pacing out moments of wry exasperation and existential terror in turn makes the experience feel richer and more realistic.

A few notes:

A relatively bulky form factor with
mechanical limitations and limited dynamic range.
The Martian Curse is being met head-on with this film— and so far The Martian seems to be beating it! It took $55 million domestic ($100 million worldwide) opening weekend against a $108 million budget. Just a note about budget here: for a film that displays all the sweep and grandeur of a big sci-fi movie, $108 mil is PEANUTS. Just comparing it to recent victims of the Martian Curse: Mars Needs Moms (2011) cost $150 million to make, and John Carter [of Mars] (2013) cost a mind-bending $264 million or more. And do you know why Ridley Scott’s Mars movie was so (relatively) cheap? It was mostly made in Hungary! The Martian exteriors were shot in Jordan— which, while grand and otherworldly, also looked just a bit familiar. Squint really hard you can see Peter O'Toole’s trailer from Lawrence of Arabia half-buried in a sand dune.

That's right-- everything from Rush's self-titled 1974
 premiere album to 2012's Clockwork Angels, all
on this tiny deal. (Nose not shown.)
• The diagetic soundtrack of The Martian features no song newer than 1979. Apparently the only music left behind on Mars belonged to Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), a 1970’s Disco enthusiast. Though this makes for many amusing scenes of Watney being musically tormented (“No, I will not turn the beat around!”) frankly I found this rather unbelievable and a bit of a pander. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) did the same thing (albeit with a more ecumenical selection of 70s pop) and it’s fair to say that if “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” was not part of that movie it would have been far less fun. They are trying for the same light, easy-to-relate-to musical touch with The Martian— but it doesn’t compute for several reasons: 1. The film set in the mid-2030’s: Disco will be 60 years old by then. Disco is music Lewis’ great-grandparents were into. 2. Digital audio files should NOT be this scarce-- even if they were accidentally left behind on Mars. My friend John received for his birthday the complete collected works of Rush. It was on a USB flash drive that was so small he could literally stuff it up his nose.

Although I did not include it in the article on
The Martian Curse. Robinson Crusoe on Mars did
poorly at the box-office as well. I also forgot
to mention the feature version of My Favorite
(1999), which also bombed (and
featured Jeff Daniels, who is also in
The Martian!).
The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe story, set on Mars— not the 1964 movie, the 1719 novel by Daniel Dafoe. It explores the application of what is called “Robinson Crusoe Economics,” where the protagonist is in a unique economy where he is the only producer and consumer. To survive he needs to maximize both his personal profits and expand his productivity with very limited resources. Dafoe’s novel was written at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific and rational political thought became paramount. Crusoe was the embodiment of Enlightenment thought: To survive (profit), inventories are made, output calculated and problems are solved, mathematically and dispassionately. As this film is an absolute love letter to Science, nothing could be more appropriate.

• Donald Glover has a small role as Rich Purnell, a JPL astrodynamic physicist who figures in a key plot point. He plays it like a slovenly genius savant: minimal eye contact, poor social skills, the whole deal. Still, as he was both Troy Barnes in “Community” and comic rap artist Childish Gambino, when he showed up on-screen I expected comedy that never actually materialized. Strange.

• Seen in 3D at a late show. I was the only one laughing at the punchy dialog. The 3D is very good, feels natural and the image is unusually bright. See it that way.

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