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"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance
of things, but their inner significance." ~ Aristotle

Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "The Martian"

This futuristic space epic based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel is a testament to matching an actor to a role. It excels also as a study in problem solving in extreme circumstances but in a cool, hopeful and positive way. As a promotion for the benefits of scientific training, it's world class. Not that the film doesn't raise some issues about giving physical reality a bit of a stretch, (more on that later) but, then, with the mix of suspense, adventure, humor and lack of weird creatures, its success as a very smart entertainment is pretty much assured.

The time frame is when a manned mission to planet Mars has become a regularly scheduled NASA activity. The crew of astronauts on one such exploratory visit is suddenly alerted to a killer storm that's about to reach their outpost. There's little time to get to their return ride, rocket ship Hermes, through the fierce Martian winds. As the leader reaches the entry hatch, a solid object goes flying... into crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon). He is down!

Stunned, his mates weigh going back for him against the suicidal nature of that impulse. Assuming her role as mission commander, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders the crew aboard barely in time to lift off.

Watney awakens the next morning, seriously in pain from an abdominal wound. His communication gear has been destroyed, but he's alive! And, here, we have the revelation that, in this future, it's possible for a strong person to extract shrapnel from his stomach fully awake. Ouch. We feel his pain.

So what do you do once that's out of the way? You check the food rations. It doesn't take multi-trained astrophysicist/botanist Watney long to calculate that the supplies aren't great enough to sustain him until the arrival of the next Mars mission, in about three years!

About the only option he can think of now is to use his training as a botanist and turn the artificial habitat into a growing field for potatoes. If you plant them they will grow.

NASA is, of course, grieving, thinking him dead... until an engineer, while studying a series of satellite photos to locate his body, realizes that he's been moving around. In the next bit of incredible MacGyver-style inventiveness, Watney goes in search of the Pathfinder probe to solve that little problem of communication.

In what one might call a directorial resurrection, director Ridley Scott steps back into his feature film persona and gives us the kind of dramatic perfection we used to expect from him: an adult, serious thriller lined with tension and humor, but this time in an almost one-character piece: a man, alone on a planet. Not any man but Damon, who, charms and thrills us with that personality that could make a wild bear care enough to pass him up for dinner.

Scott, with screenwriter Drew Goddard and with great ingenuity, maintains a sort-of-realism that's good enough in all other aspects to accept and forgive a fair amount of compromise and coincidence.

Like the fact that storms depicted here would be impossible because of the thinness of the planet's atmosphere. Like the fact that the time frame calls for years to be collapsed into a comfortable viewing time. Scott makes it easy to lose sight of the time that has to actually elapse for this story to be told.

That's all right if you get into what's really important in this 144-minute epic sci-fi -- such as the value of advanced training -- but the fictional aspect shows when no one seems the worse for wear after their years of confinement in space and a ship that's as fresh-looking as the day it rolled off the assembly line. And, while Watney may lose his cool from time to time, no astronaut is giving off a hint of claustrophobia, depression or melancholy. Everyone's tip top. All in a few years' work.

The film also features Kristen Wiig as a NASA spokesperson, Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor as mission directors, and Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie as the team of astronauts. The always interesting Mackenzie Davis is a satellite planner in Mission Control. Pena while Pena is nicely memorable for his ironic humor.

The visual quality of the film is, simply, outstanding. Particular attention must go to Dariusz Wolski ("Prometheus"), Director of Photography; Arthur Max, production designer; and Janty Yates, costume designer. The amazing exteriors that we haven't seen before in an American film were done at Wadi Rum in Jordan. The score for the quiet planet was by composer Harry Gregson-Williams and, in the context of quietude, music is in front for a lot of the screen time and makes the atmosphere seem less hostile than it might well be.

There aren't very many actors who can keep a film so relatably engaging while in such isolation for so long. Damon has a "care for me" gene that (one can argue) makes him one of the MVPs in Hollywood and he just takes us along with him on this ride. After the inexhaustible trials his character goes through, his line of determination to not "let the planet win" plays as a plea for wish-fulfillment and a cry for humanity over tremendous odds.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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