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Movie Night – 'The Martian' captures creativity, originality (Oct. 14, 2015 issue)

Let’s get this out of the way: “The Martian” is not like any movie you have ever seen. It’s not about an alien, or even about battling spaceships. Instead, it’s about one man’s struggle to survive in the most difficult situation imaginable and the teamwork of those on Earth to bring him home.
Ares III is a manned mission to Mars. As the movie opens the six astronauts that make up the crew of Ares III are on the surface of Mars. Each astronaut is performing various scientific tasks assigned to them. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the botanist of the group and he is spending his time taking samples of Martian dirt.
Watney is a born class clown, the one who always lightens the mood and keeps everyone loose. His ability to see things in a slightly different way will pay dividends for him later. The other members of the crew include Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and Watney’s best friend, Rick Martinez (Michael Peña).
As everyone is doing their daily chores, performing all of the tasks that mankind believes necessary to study the red planet, they learn that a storm is headed their way. It’s not like a storm on Earth. Storms on Mars are like a dust storm on steroids. Winds blow rocks and dust and debris at speeds that make it difficult to walk. The problem for the Ares III crew is that if the wind blows too hard it will blow over their MAV, the rocket that will take them off the surface of Mars and back to their ship orbiting Mars.
Lewis aborts the mission and orders everyone to the MAV for immediate take-off. As they slowly make their way toward the MAV in the blinding dust storm a piece of their communications equipment breaks loose and hits Watney square in the chest. The impact launches him into the air and into the darkness of the storm, far away from the crew and the MAV. Lewis orders everyone else into the MAV and searches for Watney by herself. With Watney presumed dead and the MAV about to tip over from the howling wind, Lewis retreats and the remainder of the crew blast off.
Except, Watney isn’t dead. He wakes to the sunshine after the storm and finds himself impaled with a metal rod, alone on a dead planet over 50 million miles from home with little supplies and no way to contact anyone.
The film focuses on Watney’s battle to survive and NASA’s fight to bring him home alive. Watney’s own calculations show that even if NASA finds out he’s alive it will be four years before they can send someone back to get him. The HAB the crew had set up serves as his home and he has an oxygenator and a water re-claimer. So his real issue is food. Luckily, he’s a botanist.
One of the themes that jumps off the screen is the massive complications inherent in space travel. “The Martian” is Matt Damon’s version of “Castaway,” except in the harshest and most unforgiving environment possible. Problem after problem crops up for Watney in his bid for survival. Luckily, Watney is a Martian MacGyver. He’s a born problem solver who refuses to let Mars beat him.
Matt Damon is fantastic as the ultimate man stranded on an island. He has the perfect combination of charisma, nerdiness, and humor to make his role work. Without his performance the movie wouldn’t have worked, it wouldn’t have felt genuine. It’s one of the best performances of his career.
“The Martian” is creative and original and, surprisingly, very funny. It’s the unusual movie that is resolved not by confrontation or violence, but by determination, perseverance, and teamwork. The movie is not as good as the book, but it’s not far behind.
Grade: A
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.