Saturday, October 10, 2015

Film Review: 'The Martian'

The Martian has landed at a theater near youan adaptation of Andy Weir's novel, originally serialized on a blog. Ridley Scott directs; Drew Goddard (of Cabin in the Woods fame) wrote the screenplay; both are relentlessly faithful to the source material.

The Martian in question is Mark Watney. (An Earthling played by Matt Damon, not Ray Walston.) The poor bastid's stuck on Mars. How it happened ...

Sometime in the near future, the USA is back in the spaceand we've just sent our fourth Ares mission to Mars. 18 “sols” (earth days) into the mission, a freak sandstorm sends the Ares team packing. They scramble for the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle)then Mark gets harpooned by a wind-whipped communications antenna and his life signs stop. Thinking he's dead, the rest of the crew takes off, hooks up with the orbiting return vehicle and head home. But Mark's still breathing. The antenna ripped through his biometric monitor and into his gut. But the coagulated blood and antenna fragment sealed his suit and he survived. After the storm passes, he wakes up with enough oxygen to get back to the base (aka the "Hab.") Mark's got enough food for 400 sols. The next manned mission to Mars is four years away. And Mark has no way to communicate with Earth.

Fortunately, Mark is a botanist. And he knows how to improvise.

Mark gets to work. (Hell, he's got nothing else to doand nothing to listen to but Disco.) So, he first makes water by burning hydrazine (aka rocket fuel). He then turns one section of the Hab into a greenhouse and grows a crop of potatoes in a combination of Martian soil and astronaut caca. After that, Mark figures out where the Pathfinder landed in 1997, retrieves it, and uses its communications array to talk to Earthlimited to a "yes" and "no" dialog at first, until Mark cleverly switches to Hexidecimal codeand NASA sends him a hack for full-text emails.

It goes on like that. Mark solves one problem, then the next. In the tradition of "Apollo 13," this is really a movie about creative problem-solving and how engineers and scientists actually think. So, how do you make problem-solving interesting? By making the hero's impending death the problem, natch.

This movie grips your heart without insulting your intelligence. The solutions Mark (or Andy Weir) cooks up would plausibly work; it's hard science fiction backed up by hard thinking. Problem-solving, yes. Chest-busters, face-huggers, Martian ghosts or lost civilizations, no. And there's no real enemy, aside from Mars, the laws of physics and Murphy's Law. Stuff breaks down, and that's enemy enough.

The Martian is upbeat, not optimistica happy ending is never guaranteed. Engineers are pessimists, as an engineer once said. "The universe will provide?" No engineer ever said that. The truth is, the universe (or Mars) is doing its best to kill you. But you have a decent chance of survival if you keep your head in the game and solve each problem as it comes up. It also helps to have NASA's best minds (and the Chinese equivalent) in your corner as well.

The filmmakers made me care if the guy gets home. (And when I got home, made me decide not to whine about my little problems.) It's a well-engineered movie, folks. I loved every nut, bolt, wire, widget and circuit board. Love the whole damn thing, really.

Except for the !@#$ Disco.

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