Well, I finally got to see the Martian (based on the book by Andy Weir) just in the nick of time — it’s ending tomorrow in the theatres. I wanted to see it for several reasons: 1. I’ve developed a keen interest in space due to teaching about it for many years in grade six and having had the opportunity to attend workshops with Canadian astronauts, go to a space camp with my students, and having my students do interactive activities with the Canadian Space Agency via video conferencing, 2. it is directed by Ridley Scott, 3. it stars Matt Damon, and 4. I had seen trailers for the Martian and was intrigued by the visuals of the greenhouse Mark Watney (played by Damon) created to extend his food supply, and the sets.
The crew for space mission Aries III is collecting samples from the surface of Mars and checking out their equipment, when they are alerted to the early arrival of a severe dust storm. As they make their way back to their orbiting spacecraft, Hermes, the botanist of the team, Watney, is hit by flying debris and disappears from sight. As the monitors are showing no life signs from his suit equipment, mission commander, Melissa Lewis (played by Jessica Chastain), declares him dead, and the crew blasts off for Earth. Watney, however, is not dead, but revives to find himself almost out of oxygen with a piece of metal sticking out of his abdomen. He makes it to the “Hab” (short for habitat where the crew lived in comfort while on the planet compiling its research), does some emergency surgery on himself, and survives only to realize that Earth and his crew think he’s dead. He only has enough rations to survive about 300 days and it’s four years until Aries IV is scheduled to arrive, so his first problem is growing food. Without contact with NASA or Hermes, Watney begins a diary, a portion of which reaches NASA, after they have pronounced him dead and held a funeral for him. There is some tension created when the director of NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) doesn’t want to “distract” the team aboard Hermes by telling them that Watney is still alive, but flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), wants to tell them. Sanders, of course, wins out. From here on, it is a story of struggle for survival, and a mission to bring Watney home alive.
There are a number of setbacks for Watney as he modifies the rover so that it has more energy, rescues a Pathfinder probe that stopped sending data in ’97, and prepares to travel 3200 kilometres to the crater where Aries IV is to land and where an ascent vehicle awaits their arrival. Several plans at Johnson Space Centre don’t work out, and revisions keep being devised. One, that Sanders rejects outright, is surreptitiously transmitted to the crew aboard Hermes by Henderson and the team mutinies, changing course to use the plan. This is one of the best parts of the movie — the character of Rich Purnell from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (played by Donald Glover), comes up with a new trajectory to steer Hermes around earth, have it pick up supplies for another 18 months, and use Earth’s gravity to “slingshot” them back to Mars. Once they’ve altered course, NASA has little choice but to adopt the plan.
There’s quite a bit of humour despite the setbacks and possible tragic outcomes. Watney realizes that because he has planted crops on the planet, he has actually “colonized” it. Also, when in the Hab, he’s on NASA property, but while outside the Hab he is, in effect, in “international waters”, so to speak, which makes him a pirate! When he learns that NASA wants him to totally strip down the ascent vehicle, including throwing out the windows and removing the nosecone to cover it with, well, plastic, Watney refers to this as being launched into space in a “convertible”. There are a lot of great quotes in the movie, including one about duct tape, which Watney uses a lot.
Twenty sets for this movie were built on a sound stage in Budapest, and Wadi Rum in Jordan was used for very realistic backdrops. This is possibly one of the most authentic space movies to date, as Scott had huge cooperation from NASA, and their involvement ensured that the science and technology in the movie was accurately portrayed. They also gave the movie crew hundreds of “real images” of Mars from their files.
There’s a lot of great acting in the Martian. People will recognize Kate Mara from House of Cards in a totally different kind of role. Sean Bean is great as the flight director willing to resign in order to get both the team and Watney back in one piece. And I just have to mention Donald Glover again; I only have to think of him and I start to laugh — he was so excited about his work and hilarious when explaining how it would work to the NASA director, flight director, and their project team. The movie has already received a lot of awards — some for Best Picture and Damon for Best Actor — and there are more nominations to come — the Oscars are in March. This is a great movie with incredible filming and wonderful acting. * * * * *