‘The Martian’ celebrates the joys of science, condemns disco

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here are long, beautiful shots of Mars’ red, barren landscapes in “The Martian.” The vast emptiness of the planet’s red dunes surrounded by craters and towering mountains looming over Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he literally goes where no man has gone before.

And then, just as the sense of dread and isolation of trying to survive alone on this inhospitable planet starts to creep in, Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” starts blaring.

“No, I will not ‘Turn the beat around,'” says an exasperated Watney.

Director Ridley Scott’s latest film focuses on an astronaut, Watney, who is accidentally left behind by his crew during a NASA mission to Mars that’s suddenly aborted due to a powerful Martian storm. Presumed dead, Watney uses his knowledge as a botanist and astronaut to “science the shit” out of the items and supplies left behind with him to try and survive until the next manned mission to the planet arrives.

Here’s the rub: the soonest help will be able to reach him is three years, and the only music he has access to is a compilation of disco hits left behind by his mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain).

Based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, Scott made sure to keep the novel’s humor intact as they adapted the sci-fi adventure for the screen. In an interview with space.com, Scott said “The engine of [the story] is humor. That’s what I saw. And Drew Goddard, the screenwriter, kept that integral to the story.”

When thinking of Scott’s best known films, “Alien” and “Blade Runner” are usually the first ones to come to mind. And while “The Martian” does share those films’ love of science and technologies of the near future, tonally it’s closer to his work on “Matchstick Men” and “A Good Year.”

This is especially true when Scott focuses on how NASA’s ground control team and the Mars mission crew are unapologetically geeky in their passion for not only science (a NASA rescue plan is codenamed Project Elrond, for example), but science in the service of space exploration and saving fellow geek Watney.

Yet while its admirable to have a film celebrating science and championing the importance of space exploration in an era when NASA is moving to outsource some spaceflight missions to private companies to save money, it comes at the cost of character development.

Watney begins the film as a cocky, foulmouthed scientist and at its end is pretty much the same person. Besides Watney, the only other standout characters are NASA spokesperson Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and astrodynamics expert Rich Purnell (Donald Glover). Yet they also remain static characters throughout the film.

Scott also dedicates some runtime to an awkward sub-plot around the politics of NASA and the possibility of the space agency losing funding for manned missions if Watney dies. But thankfully this is dropped fairly early in the film in order to focus on Watney “MacGyvering” his way out of problems on Mars.

In the end though, Scott has crafted a visually stunning and genuinely fun castaway film thanks to Damon’s entertaining performance.

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