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I feel like Jan Brady: “Martian, Martian, MARTIAN!”
Only one Martian, Greg. Not a bunch. And he’s My Favorite Martian. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Matt Watney (Matt Damon) who is on an away mission to Mars with his 7 fellow astronauts. They are all gathering dirt and samples when a storm starts a-brewin’. So they rush back to the ship as the storm starts getting rough. So rough, in fact that a satellite dish goes flying and hits our boy. The rest of the team make it to the rocket and they reluctantly take off without him, thinking he’s dead.
Turns out that Watney survived the mishap and is now stranded on the red planet. He calculates that he has about a year’s worth of food supplies but must somehow survive three years until the next manned mission to Mars arrives. Being a botanist, Watney uses his skills to begin planting crops inside his habitat shelter. Meanwhile NASA scientists discover from photographs of the planet that Watney is alive, and they begin communicating with him. Soon they hatch a daring effort to rescue Watney before he starves to death.
Scott, The Martian is another in a series of smart, scientifically accurate, science fiction movies (following 2013’s Gravity and last year’s Interstellar). The Martian puts you right in the action. You immediately care about Watney’s situation and you root for him to succeed. When everything goes south on him we all feel his anguish. If you notice that I’m talking a lot about feelings in this review, it’s for good reason. The science isn’t only what’s showcased here, it’s the emotions of Watney on Mars, and his compatriots on the spaceship above, and his peers at Mission Control back on Earth. I was struck by how the screenwriter (Drew Goddard ) and director (Ridley Scott) kept three different storylines running at once. That makes for a fantastic story.
The Martian is an extraordinary hero story, perhaps the best I’ve seen on the big screen in several years. The movie itself is almost as strong as the hero’s journey; it explodes off the screen, seizing our attention and lifting our hearts for the entire 2 hours and 21 minutes. We have the complete package here: a riveting screenplay, a terrific cast, astounding CGI effects, and a gritty hero worthy of our greatest admiration.
The only element of the hero’s journey that is missing is a “mentor” figure. My thinking is that there are “implied” mentors — all the teachers and trainers who taught him skills in science and survival. The end of the movie, showing him become that teacher to others, drives home that point. We saw that kind of implied mentor in A Walk in the Woods, where Robert Redford’s character reveals the influence of Henry David Thoreau.
Scott, what you’re describing could be “The Mentor’s Journey.” We’ve seen this in other stories. The last role for the hero is to become a mentor; to share his lessons learned with new and upcoming heroes. In The Hunger Games Haymitch is just such a mentor. He was once a tribute for the Hunger Games and he survived by killing off all the other tributes. As such, he became a hero figure. Now, in his twilight days, he passes on what he has learned to newer tributes. His final destination as a hero is to become a mentor.
I felt there were a lot of heroes in this story. Of course there’s Watney on Mars. But there are other lesser heroes. There is the director of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) who has three underlings who act as henchmen (Henderson, Ng, and Moontrose). While he manages the operation, it’s the other three who do the dirty work. We also see a turncoat in Henderson. He defies Sanders and informs the crew. This may be a new secondary character – the Unreliable Henchman. Up on spaceship Ares, there is a crew of followers lead by Captain Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). They are also following the Mastermind/Henchman pattern.
I’d also like to draw your attention to two characters who represent a new kind of secondary character for us – the Ingenious Youngster. In one case we have a young woman, Mindy Park, who spots Watney on the satellite photos. In the next, is the young orbital mechanics scientist Purnell (Donald Glover) who figures out how to get Watney home. Both of these underlings are far down in the hero hierarchy, but without them, the story ends sadly.
You’re right, Greg, in pointing out the importance of the young kid character who unexpectedly saves the day by solving a problem that his (or her) elders cannot. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, it was Wesley Crusher who bailed out the Enterprise on more than one occasion. Here it is Purnell, a neophyte astrophysicist whose computations allow for the possibility for the crew to perform a slingshot maneuver around the sun to expedite a return trip to Mars to save Watney.
This whiz-kid character stands in direct contrast to the archetypal Wise Old Man or Woman character who usually serves as the mentor. How interesting that heroes can get help from all different types of sources, some expected and others unexpected. I suspect that villains can receive assistance from a similar range of characters, although The Martian is not the right movie to test this hypothesis. There is no human villain in the story; the villain is nature itself, specifically, the inhospitable natural conditions endemic to Mars.
Which brings up an interesting question in this story – who is the villain for the secondary characters? It would seem it is time. NASA is running out of time before their window of opportunity closes. The astronauts aboard spaceship Ares are also fighting against the time it takes to turn around and go back after Watney. Also, the director of NASA plays a bit of the villain too, as he weighs the expense of losing one man on Mars, versus an entire crew in a rescue attempt. In his mind, better to lose one man than a whole ship and its crew. Perhaps budgets and finance are a villain for him?
The Martian is a great story told exceedingly well. The three plotlines dovetail nicely to give us what some have called Apollo 13 on steroids. The science in this movie has won praises from all corners. The special effects made me believe I was on Mars. But more than that, the tension in this movie is unrelenting. I couldn’t look away for a second for fear I’d miss something important. I give The Martian 5 out of 5 Reels.
There are heroes a-plenty in this movie. Watney, of course, is the main character and is the hero of his plotline. But the other two plotlines have heroic characters at all levels of the story. Even in China we meet two scientists who risk their reputations and status to help rescue Watney. As for Watney, he is the ultimate hero. He’s physically capable and the most competent man on the planet. He uses all his knowledge and experience to survive in the harshest of environments. He gets a full 5 out of 5 Heroes.
Finally, the enormous cast of secondary characters is just overwhelming. We see two sets of Mastermind/Henchman hierarchies. Everyone from the top down is working at their peak to get Watney home. The cast is diverse in every way. We even found a new supporting character in the young geniuses. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 cast points.
Greg, nothing displeases me more than agreeing with you, but I have to concur with you across the board. The Martian is a near-flawless movie that deserves both critical acclaim and box office success. I hope this film gets recognized with numerous nominations at Oscar time. It’s both a no-brainer and a pleasure to award the full 5 Reels out of 5 to The Martian.
The hero story is textbook. Watney travels the full hero’s journey, and in every phase of the journey we witness a richness and depth that is rarely seen in the movies. Watney shows all eight characteristics in the Great Eight traits of heroes: He is smart, strong, inspiring, reliable, resilient, caring, selfless, and charismatic. He becomes transformed from ordinary astronaut to an exceptionally innovative, pioneering colonist who rises to the challenge of surviving where no human has any right to survive. Clearly, Watney earns the full 5 Heroes out of 5 here.
And as you mention, Greg, the secondary characters possess a similar richness and depth, and they do exactly what secondary characters should do in any great movie. They complement the hero, assist him, wrong him at times (albeit unintentionally), and enjoy their own mini-journeys of discovery, despair, and triumph. This impressive cadre of supporting characters no doubt earn a rating of 5 out of 5.
I don’t think films get much better than this. I’d like to nominate The Martian for the coveted Reel Heroes Hall of Fame. What do you say?