Saturday, January 23, 2016

My Favorite Martian

I have to be honest, the main reason I decided to go see The Martian was not because I am particularly fond of Matt Damon, but because at the time I had looked, it had a 98% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes! (It has dropped to 93% since). My expectation of the plot was literally a cross between Apollo 13 and Castaway (lead role match notwithstanding), and on that count was not too far off target. But with Ridley Scott at the helm I figured it would at least be interesting, and in the end it turned out to be closer to amazing. A blog entry was in order.

Now it took some self-reflection for me to decide what made this film fall into the category of science fiction. I would have loved to blog about another recent space disaster film, namely Gravity, but refrained because I decided it was not part of the genre. Just because a fictional story is set in space does not make it sci-fi. There has to be some element of speculation that stretches the imagination regarding what is possible. I decided that since Gravity was set in near earth orbit on existing space station technology, it depicts events that could happen today without any further contribution from science or technology. However, The Martian, although it is based on NASA's own realistic ideas of how such a trip and rescue could be done, the fact remains that it has not yet been done. It is still completely in the minds of today's scientists and engineers. That puts it right on the border line of science fiction and real life drama, and that is part of what makes it such great story. Unlike most other fictional stories set on Mars, it not about Mars the planet, it is about the limits of human achievement.

I don't think this film got as much credit as it deserves for staying so true to actual science.  I read that the author of the original book, Andy Weir, had connections to NASA and was able to allow the director access to the top scientists working on the Mars projects. I think Scott may have been attracted to the project because of its potential to inspire future scientists and engineers to go into space exploration, and to garner public support for a manned Mars mission so that our country could make it a priority. I believe that because of this he let NASA rule the day on the technical side, while at the same time using his own skills to craft an engaging story that is suspenseful, charmingly humorous, and educational at the same time. The only flaw for me was the somewhat corny soundtrack. I almost forgave it when I realized those disco tunes were being played right after the Apollo missions had ended in 1972. It was almost like saying "Hey guys, let's pick up where we left off."

I have to also mention that this is one of two films that I would actually recommend seeing in 3D format (the other one being the aforementioned Gravity). The reason is simply that the Martian landscapes that were created were absolutely spectacular! And they are featured regularly between segues throughout the film. Ridley Scott loves good cinematography and he features every angle possible, from rock formation closeups to satellite altitude flyovers. Even though I'm sure some rocks are real and some are digital, you just cannot tell one from the other. If you want to really feel you are on Mars, see the film in 3D.

I haven't said much about the details of the story but there is really not much more that needs to be said because it is all just a tale of how a group of people use raw ingenuity to perform a rescue mission from one of the most uninhabitable places you could realistically be stranded in. That story is as old as Robinson Crusoe and still works, so no spoiler warning needed. I will, however, admit that I thought my blog title was pretty cheesy, but I could not resist as it comes from an old show from my childhood, and it gists with my belief that the film is important on levels other than just its entertainment value. And lo and behold, I later discovered that when My Favorite Martian was made into a move in 1999, it co-starred Jeff Daniels, who plays the director of NASA in this film. That's enough to redeem the cheese!

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