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“The Martian”: My Own Planet Idaho

Martian Potatoes!

1000 potato, 2000 potato, 3000 potato, 4! Here a potato, there a potato! Potatoes, potatoes galore!

My son and I went to see The Martian two weekends ago, partly because we were both interested and partly to make up for how we “celebrated” his 21st birthday back in August by seeing Fantastic Four. I felt I owed him a do-over (and then some), and I’m glad Ridley Scott’s uplifting vision of Matt Damon, interstellar potato engineer, more than compensated for our last cinema visit.

America’s #1 film for four straight weeks doesn’t need any input from me, but one of Midlife Crisis Crossover’s myriad uses for me is to catalog my movie-going experiences. If I saw it in theaters, it gets an entry sooner or later. And thus it is written.

Alternate titles for this entry include:

“Red Planet, Green Thumb”
“The Astronaut Farmer”
“The Distant Gardener”
“Spuds Mechanics”
“The Tuber Whisperer”
“Old MacGyver Had a Farm”
“Mars Needs Ketchup”
“The Low-G All-Carb Diet”
“Taters Gonna Tate”
“Healthy, Wealthy and Fries”

Short version for the unfamiliar: Academy Award Winner Matt Damon is future astronaut Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars when a freak Martian weather accident cuts him off from his crew, who blast off and unwittingly leave him for dead. This is a near future without Star Trek/Star Wars FTL travel, so NASA can’t just send an Uber rocket to swing by and pick him up. Determined to survive until a long-term resupply or rescue mission can be mounted, Watney makes the most of their modest space-base infrastructure, the other astronauts’ abandoned personal effects, the harsh Martian landscape, a few surprises from Martian exploration history, not one single friendly alien, no imaginary creatures, his core botanical training, and several other kinds of science that imply every good astronaut must have to earn eight or nine college degrees minimum to put on their resumé.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: You can tell The Martian had an enormous budget by its cast alone. Damon’s fellow crew members are a who’s-who of top talents: captain Jessica Chastain (faring better here than in Crimson Peak, apparently), Ant-Man‘s Michael Pena, Kate Mara atoning for Fantastic Four, and Sebastian Stan, the Space Winter Soldier.

Meanwhile back on Earth, NASA employs the combined might of Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (a slightly different scientist from his 2012 hero), NASA director Jeff Daniels, a serious Kristen Wiig, and a surprisingly not-dead Sean Bean as a not-bad guy. Worthy names on the lower decks include Benedict Wong from the wondrous yet overlooked Sunshine, Halt and Catch Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis, and Community‘s Donald Glover as the first astrodynamicist in cinema history.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Like Pixar’s Inside Out, there’s no actual villain for Matt Damon to punch, outrace, or otherwise defeat. The closest we get to an anthropomorphic antagonist is Daniels’ unhelpful authority figure, who chooses the wrong corners to cut and then picks the worst time to play things too safely. Him aside, it’s more of a classic man-vs.-nature struggle, except the Mother Nature of Mars is crueler and stingier than the Mother Nature of Earth. Watney has high-tech equipment, intensive training, complex resources, an eventual makeshift communication line to Earth that puts the sum of NASA knowledge at his disposal, and prettier visual effects, but otherwise it’s basically like a Hemingway short.

The ultimate point of the movie is “Look at cool things we can do with science now, or will be able to do with it someday really soon.” In that sense it’s less about a personal victory for a single astronaut than it is about Man conquering a representative sample from the deceptively sparse infinity of The Universe.

Not that Watney does it alone: his survival depends on the cooperation and innovation of the scientists back home, as well as some crucial daredevil maneuvers by his teammates once they’re keyed into the situation. Success takes several small steps from a man and several giant leaps from mankind.

Nitpicking? Watney’s tribulations are eased somewhat thanks to the divine gift of infinite oxygen and water. In this timeline NASA’s standard planetary exploration equipment include an “oxygenator” and “water reclamators” that keep both essentials on tap for the full running time, presumably based either on: (a) the theory that Mars’ composition is actually 70% water and survival is just a matter of knowing where all the best underground oases are; or (b) sufficiently advanced offscreen technology fueled by undiluted movie magic. Granted, individual space suits run dangerously low on air at times, but as long as he can get back to home base or a properly rigged transport, then Damon’s good to go. Once you bypass two of the biggest barriers to interplanetary travel, that simplifies the narrative and lets Our Hero concentrate on the all-important dramatic potato farming.

If you’re among the American viewers who’re bemused or annoyed at how some Hollywood blockbuster producers seem to love pandering for vast Chinese dollars these days, you may experience some eye-rolling pains later in the film when a surprise contribution from their side helps save the day.

A much more consternating issue: The Martian contains flagrant use of vintage disco tunes. UGH.

So what’s to like? It’s to Matt Damon’s credit that the dramatic potato farming captivates us as well as it does. His emotions run the full spectrum, whether he’s patching gadgets together, eating the same meal hundreds of times in a row, performing self-surgery, talking to no one, or typing angrily at others. Mark Watney is a charming, near-perfect specimen whose only flaw is he’s sometimes in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that wrong place is Mars.

Other humans do what they can in the time allotted, though I’d say Chastain and Ejiofor have the best non-Damon moments. It’s also interesting watching grizzled pros Sean Bean and Jeff Daniels having a go at each other when the situation is grim and the odds are against them. One dissonant note: I’m fine with Donald Glover appearing in anything else ever, but his klutzy prodigy seems to have hitched a ride out of a nearby Roland Emmerich film. In my mind I’ve now sketched an imaginary short in which Glover inserts himself into Interstellar and sends Christopher Nolan’s blood pressure soaring.

Working with a sharp screenplay from the dependable Drew Goddard (Daredevil, Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) adapted from the novel by Andy Weir, Ridley Scott crafts another sci-fi milieu apart from those old, olden days of Alien and Blade Runner. The forbidding, sometimes majestic Martian landscapes and those claustrophobic yet livable astronaut quarters lack the looming decay of the Nostromo or the fanciful lighting setups of grim-and-gritty Los Angeles, so Scott and his crew aren’t repeating themselves here. The technology feels cozier because it’s grounded in a reality somewhat closer to our own than his previous sci-fi projects were to their respective eras.

The space sequences are suspenseful and as remarkably competent as we expect from today’s A-list sci-fi. I’m pretty sure the climax owes a small debt to Gravity. Regardless, The Martian is a joy-filled feel-good yay-humanity adventure where the best moments are made not with rockets and explosions, but with small-scale intimacy that just so happens to have a nine-digit account for backgrounds and costumes.

How about those end credits? Scene after the end credits: Deimos, moon of Mars, falls out of orbit and hurtles at super-speed toward Earth, where its devastating impact kills a defenseless Sean Bean.

Well, not really.

No, there’s no scene after The Martian‘s end credits, though they do confirm NASA consulted on the film without actually endorsing it. (I’m thinking Jeff Daniels’ ineffectual bureaucrat wasn’t their favorite part.) There’s also a credit for LiDAR services provided by a company called We Shoot Lasers, which may be the greatest company name I’ve ever seen in movie credits. I have no idea what LiDAR is, but I wonder if it’s cooler than mere 20th-century lasers.

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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