Finally, at long last, I got around to watching 2015's The Martian last night. At least now I'll have seen it before its fate is decided at the Oscars. It turns out it's a really good movie. Well, I expected it to be good based on how my friends talked about it, plus it's a Ridley Scott movie written by Drew Goddard. It's so nice when Scott has a good screenwriter on board, it happens all too rarely. We can thank our lucky star that producer Simon Kinberg didn't write it. Otherwise we might not have had this tightly put together plot brought to life with natural and funny dialogue combined with Ridley Scott's usual brilliance for visuals.
I don't know why it took me so long to see it, maybe it was the lacklustre Comic Con panel which I didn't even mention seeing in my Con reports last year. It was actually the NASA/The Martian/Adam Nimoy combo panel. I mainly went to see it because the NASA panel in 2014 had been so great with several of the top brass from NASA as well as Buzz Aldrin appearing. 2015's panel had more low level workers who didn't have anything particular to announce or insights to share and their time was cut short anyway by a producer from The Martian giving canned sales spiel and Adam Nimoy awkwardly trying to make plugging his documentary about his father, Leonard, sound like it was a natural inclusion with the other two topics.
The Martian has a great cast but in a way it was a cast that needed to be overcome, too. Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, as many have pointed out, both starred in Interstellar in very similar roles. Also, on a minor point, this movie has Sean Bean in a scene where people talk about Lord of the Rings and no-one mentions the Boromir in the room.
But the story does overcome the potentially distracting parts largely because of a rather endearing, sincere enthusiasm. Everyone's excited about the possibilities, everyone is eager to work on the details of this problem in front of them. It's not a movie about people being gung ho and having personal issues that distract them or motivate them. I really loved that--we don't hear about Mark's (Damon) ex-wife or his great love, his problem is all about growing potatoes on Mars. Jeff Daniels' problem is balancing the big picture of insuring NASA's survival with PR and actually saving Mark; the different team members at Mission Control played by Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean are all focused on finding a way to send a supply ship to Mark or coming up with different strategies for getting him back or reconfiguring the machines he has on hand to extend his survival. The movie assumes all this is interesting and it's right, damn it.
We need a lot more movies like this. This is the first film more or less about a real world space programme I can remember seeing where it was actually all about the excitement of working out the science of space travel. Not Marooned, not Apollo 13 really had this. The only other examples I can think of are individual episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Of course, people have debated the scientific accuracy of the film. There was an effort to be scientifically accurate and experts seem to have been mostly satisfied. I'm obviously not qualified to comment but one thing that really bugged me was the lights in the helmets.
You don't see these on real astronaut helmets for the simple reason that they'd compromise the vision of the person wearing the helmet. This is why you don't drive a car at night with all the lights on inside the car. It's obviously done so the audience can see the actors' faces but in a movie like this it'd be nice if realism won out. I'm glad to say the lights inside the helmets seem to disappear as the movie goes on.
The movie features a really lovely use of David Bowie's "Starman".