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'The Martian' Is A Blockbuster For Science, But How Does It Measure Up Cinematically?

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie portray the crew members of the fateful mission to Mars in "The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie portray the crew members of the fateful mission to Mars in "The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
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The much anticipated big screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s hot-read "The Martian" finally lands in theaters this week.

For local boy Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott, it’s a respectable go, but for science and NASA, it’s an unequivocal win. Following the film’s release those chem and bio books on high schoolers' nightstands will get a little sexier.

For those not familiar with Weir’s self-published e-book that became a New York Times bestseller, it takes place in the short near future, when manned flights to Mars are doable and entails the ordeal of an astronaut left for dead on the Red Planet, who then must survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. The major must haves, air and water (no, it's not prescient of the findings) are relatively “easy” to ascertain.

The big gotcha is food, as the pup-tent bivouac is only stocked with enough rations to feed a crew of six for 60 days. If you're doing the math and forecasting, that's the joyful brain bait Weir imbued throughout his novel. The book has been hailed as one of the best pure science, science fiction books in a long while (Weir, a former programmer who worked on the Warcraft video games was reared on a steady diet of Arthur C. Clarke).

Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard ("World War Z" and "Cloverfield") however don't have reams of paper or time to stop and explain the not-so-basic math, chemistry and biology solutions that propel "The Martian," but what they do have are digi-logs, so that Damon, playing left-behind spaceman Mark Watney, a biologist by trade, can speak directly into GoPro cams or any of the myriad of the recording devices sprinkled throughout the space tent known as a "hab" and the rover, an all-terrain SUV on steroids.

To explain how Watney gets marooned and rises from the dead would be doing the uninformed a disservice. It's smart and sharply done in both mediums, as is how Watney is discovered alive on the far off planet by satellite wonks at NASA (there's no comms that can reach that far to squawk real time). But all these golden plot nuggets come directly from from Weir's blueprint. What's missing is the looming sense of dread that so effectively filled other recent deep space conundrums like "Gravity" and "Interstellar," let alone the imposing power of loneliness that Tom Hanks so convincingly evoked on a similarly remote and desolate body (an island on Earth occupied by a volleyball) in "Cast Away."

"The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
"The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)

These were foibles in the book too, but here, in the universal medium of cinema, they become more accentuated. Part of it's that Watney's a thinly drawn, cocksure wise guy with no one back home waiting for him. If he perishes, there are no dependents who hang in the balance, but to NASA and the world, it's a major must as rival governments and institutions put aside their differences and make nice to, as the tag line says, "Bring him home." The dynamics of the NASA brass (Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who are both excellent in their pigeonholed roles) bear piquant fruit as do the problem-solving and political jockeying subplots.

Meanwhile, back on Mars, Watney employs solar panels, rocket fuel and vacuum sealed fecal matter to "science the s---" out of everything (literally) to stay alive and make it to Checkpoint Bravo on time (a complex rescue plan from HQ is in play). In all this too, his fellow crew members, led by Jessica Chastain, remain uninformed of Watney's living status as they sail through space on their several-year journey home.

Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who did several of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and worked with Scott on "Prometheus," conjure up gorgeous desolate planet-scapes. The film is a wonder to behold, but like one of the teams engineering a solution, personality is laid aside for the greater common goal and that too seems to be the case with "The Martian." There's a resonating coldness to it beyond the subzero temps of its iconic planet setting. For Scott, whose body of work consists mostly of bravado brimming misadventures ("Alien," "Black Hawk Down" and "Blade Runner" to name a few), "The Martian" is one of the director's lighter, less baroque endeavors (others being "Legend" and "Matchstick Men") and in that, Scott at times feels a tad lost when orchestrating moments of levity, something he balanced so seamlessly in "Thelma & Louise." The incongruity in tone, that while subtle, pulls at the viewer's sensibilities, like a hovering mosquito, always near and always distracting.

Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in "The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)
Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself stranded and alone on Mars, in "The Martian." (Courtesy 20th Century Fox)

Damon and the other cast members playing heroes up in space (on the shuttle on its way back to Earth) never register any depth, especially Chastain, who possesses a cold ethereal countenance that should be perfect for a command helm, gets left in a vacuum of stolid mission speak. Also lost in the galactic get is SNLer Kristen Wiig — so good in "Bridesmaids" and other comedy vehicles — as a NASA PR spinstress. It's not because she's a fish in a new pond, it's because she's given so little to work with and what there is, a humorless robot could fill equally as well. No matter, in the end, Scott finds a familiar pedal and all the elements of the one-in-a-million rescue shot come together in thrilling effect.

It may be hard to believe that it's been 20 years since Ron Howard's real-life space drama "Apollo 13" graced the screen. We all knew how it ended. It was history, but Howard and his superb cast brought soul and heart to every moment — every nanosecond was wrenching. Howard, like Scott, was challenged with balancing a terra firma drama with the celestial disaster-in-the-making above. Scott only gets it half right, but the science lecture up to the go-for-broke finale, is scintillating in its own cerebral right.

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, The Rumpus, Thieves Jargon, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere. You can follow Tom on Twitter at @TBMeek3 and read more at TBMeek3.wordpress.com.

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Tom Meek Twitter Contributor, The ARTery
In addition to The ARTery, Tom Meek's reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal.

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