Saturday, January 16, 2016

Review: "The Martian" is an Awe-Inspiring Ride Through Space

Matt Damon in The Martian
For most of the 20th century, there was something alluring about looking towards the skies and imagining the possibilities of travelling to other planets. It was a big draw for several decades and, thanks to NASA, has lead to a lot of impressive advancements for humankind. To some extent, the magic in the real world has died down in the past decade and is often saved for sci-fi and fantasy, leaving some to wonder if those ambitions to think beyond the stars would ever be as popular as they once were. Thanks largely to director Ridley Scott's The Martian - the first major film endorsed by NASA since 1995's Apollo 13 - one can only have faith that maybe, just maybe, the future of space travel will continue to allure audiences and bring the nation together over a common goal. It's not only what this feel good film's propaganda tendencies wants you to believe, it's what you get in between awe-inspiring cinematography and a brilliant performance by Matt Damon.

While far from the first film grounded in astronaut and planetary realism, The Martian is a film that has the impressive achievement of making outer space seem like more than scary aliens and meteorites. According to reports, the film's basis (Andy Weir's "The Martian") is factually accurate and that NASA worked closely with Scott on the adaptation. One would be forgiven for thinking that the Mars scenes are fictional solely because the laymen viewer wouldn't know the difference. More than simply being in a shuttle circling planets, what makes The Martian a fascinating journey is that it makes science accessible and turns an incredible concept such as surviving on a foreign planet into an awe inspiring story that is as much about space exploration as it is patriotism. The film rests as much on Earth's entire population finding hope in rescuing one stranded astronaut (Matt Damon) as it does on the impressive science by which he survives.

As much as the film is an excuse to look at gorgeous landscapes of the Mars planet, it is also a film that works largely thanks to Damon. Through a physical transformation, he takes calculated steps to survive, making something that is clinical but made more fascinating if you account for its realistic accuracy. Despite being the only person on the planet, Damon's character is given a lot of personality and will to survive. There are long stretches where he's forced to do trial and error, only humoring himself so that he remains sane. Thanks largely to Drew Goddard's engaging script, the film manages to get around any problem with characters rich with personality and small intricate tics. It's a film that feels lived in where even the least significant NASA member feels familiar. It's the perfect group mission movie by which the task is easy, but requires a lot of personal faith to achieve it.

Credit must be given to Scott, whose recent career hasn't been the hottest. While he should be credited with making space appealing with Alien, his return to the franchise with 2012's Prometheus left many fans scoffing at his involvement. Despite his rough relation to fictional space, the NASA-endorsed realistic space comes across a lot stronger. Beyond the beautiful red planet, the gorgeous space ships by which his fellow crew members travel is a sight to behold. Even if this outer space isn't as elegant as last year's Interstellar, it still feels a lot more impressive thanks to Scott's firm direction and his ability to wade in the majestic scenery. This is an outer space that feels lived in, and one that manages to maintain its awe and mystery along the way. 

Whether or not intentional, this also feels like the perfect piece of propaganda for the 21st century version of NASA. In an era where space launches aren't as celebrated as they used to be, it's hard to find the new generation falling in love with the wonders of space. There's so much out there, yet it's only viable in the realm of fiction or in perilous thrillers such as Gravity. There's something immediately refreshing about The Martian solely because it feels like it's grounded in something real. There's a camaraderie that feels tangible and makes the awe-inspiring rescue in the third act all the more satisfying. What this film has is a desire to show NASA at its most ambitious (without being superfluous). Thankfully, it has enough endearing characters to make it feel richer when those emotional beats hit.

The Martian is a film that's impressive largely because it captures the American spirit of the 60's space race, but in a contemporary setting. With a phenomenal performance by Damon, the whole film is an impressive ode to what science and technological advancements have done not just to better society, but to better interstellar studies. This is a film that will hopefully inspire the next generation of NASA scientists to pick up a telescope and learn more about the universe. It's an entertaining, accessible film the likes of which aren't often made anymore. It's intelligent, witty, and beautiful. This is the Scott that I hope sticks around for the rest of his career: making intriguing blockbusters that resonate with audiences while bringing hope to the future. 

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