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Attitude sends ‘The Martian’ into orbit

Dan Webster

We waited a week to review Ridley Scott's movie "The Martian" for "Movies 101," the show that Mary Pat Treuthart, Nathan Weinbender and I do for Spokane Public Radio. This explains why I've waited so long to post my review. But here it is:

The opening line of Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian” employs one of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

But Weir’s use of the word – a familiar four-letter epithet beginning with the letter F – isn’t gratuitous. It’s both comic and clarifying in terms of the speaker’s temperament. It lets us know from the beginning that Weir’s protagonist, Mark Watney, is both a regular guy and someone boasting an attitude.

It is that attitude, along with his “Mister Wizard”-type science skills, that gives Watney both the will, and means, to survive. Which – no spoilers here – is the question that “The Martian” poses: How can someone endure in what, for most of us, would be an impossible situation?

Now filmmaker Ridley Scott, he of “Alien,” “Blade Runner” and “Prometheus” fame, brings Weir’s survival saga to the big screen. Like Alfonso’s Cuaron’s 2013 sci-fi flick “Gravity,” Scott’s film is a sustained look at someone’s struggle to overcome space problems that might have been too much even for the crew of “Apollo 13.” Unlike “Gravity,” “The Martian” is less about visual thrills than it is a variation on a standard storyline: Think “MacGyver” meets “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.”

Set in 2035 (which is Weir’s own date), “The Martian” opens with the six members of NASA’s so-called Ares Mission working on the Red Planet’s surface. Facing an impending storm, they are ordered to head back into orbit. But the conditions deteriorate so quickly that, while returning to the ship, Watney gets swept away by flying debris. The crew, believing he is dead, takes off without him.

But he is NOT dead. He wakes us, half covered in Martian dust, injured, almost out of air and barely able to stumble to the Habitat that – just a few hours previous – had been the crew’s home. So he’s safe. But only for the moment. He has limited air, limited food and – it seems – no way to create either. Furthermore, he has no way to contact NASA, and even if he could, help is more than four years away.

But Watney – played by Damon in, as A.O. Scott says, true Jimmy Stewart mode – is just as hard-nosed as he is, at times, good-naturedly obnoxious. And so he gets to work.

Meanwhile, back at home, NASA itself, when it isn’t getting bogged down in bureaucratic battles is getting bogged down with debates about what to do next – debates that get even more complicated when it becomes clear that the crew member everyone thought was dead is anything but. What to do, what to do?

Director Scott, as he has done throughout his 38-year career, handles all this with consummate skill. Along with his typical cinematography savvy, he proves a worthy wrangler of a large, talented cast – one that includes not just Damon but also Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Miguel Peña and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

So while Weir’s story, which screenwriter Drew Goddard adapted for Scott, may not be particularly profound – we’re not talking “Blade Runner” here, after all – it is memorable. Which just shows you what a little attitude can accomplish.

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