A Tale of Two Survivals
By Jon Gallagher
The Martian (20th Century Fox, 2015) – Director: Ridley Scott. Writers: Drew Goddard (s/p), Andy Weir (book). Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mackensie Davis, Donald Glover, Nick Mohammed, & Chen Shu. Color, Rated PG-13, 144 minutes.
The story of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a tale of survival and how a man left behind on the planet Mars has to fend for himself and manage to survive on limited resources until help arrives. Ironically, the theater in which I saw this movie is also in its own battle for survival, so much so that this may be the last movie shown on its screen for some time.
A little background is called for here. I live in a town of about 2,000 people. The theater here is over 100 years old and was once a vaudeville theater before becoming a movie house, complete with the black and white silent movies before moving on to talkies, and finally Technicolor and Dolby. The current owner has laid claim to the place for more than 30 years; he’s seen it all, and it’s been a nice little moneymaker for him over the years. From his humble beginnings here in town, he has, over the years, owned or co-owned as many as four theaters with more than 15 screens total.
He’s been a survivor himself. While all the other small towns around us have closed their theaters, ours has stayed open. If you don’t like the movie playing here in town (it’s a single screen), then your only other option is to rent something, or drive at least 30 miles to the nearest theater.
When I moved to town 13 years ago, you could get a seat in the theater for just two bucks. You certainly couldn’t beat that! You couldn’t even rent a movie that cheap, and the theater was running current movies. We might not have gotten them on the release date, but we had them within a couple weeks of their release. There was no pressure from the big chains to keep our theater from getting first-run flicks because they knew our little 400-seat theater wasn’t going to hurt them a bit.
About six years ago, the owner decided to step into the 21st century and raise his prices a bit. They skyrocketed to $3 per seat, and, of course, there were complaints from the town folk who complain about everything.
Shortly after raising his prices, however, an F-3 tornado came through town and took direct aim at the theater. It ripped out a good portion of the west wall and took off the roof, depositing it half inside the theater and half on the building next door. Eighty people watching a movie when the theater was hit were miraculously spared; there wasn’t a single injury.
The power to the theater had gone out and so, with no movie to watch, everyone got up to file out. When the twister hit, all 80 people were either in the lobby, or under the balcony and managed to avoid the falling roof. Amazing!
Unfortunately, the owner was underinsured. When the insurance company wrote him a check for repairs, it didn’t even cover half of what needed to be done. He was ready to pay off loans he had taken out, and close up shop.
The citizens of our town wouldn’t hear of it. They convinced him to forge ahead. He asked for donations from the town folk, and they came through, covering the rest of the repairs to his place. It took a year, but the theater rose from the rubble and was once again operating.
He jacked ticket prices to $4. Still, that was a bargain compared to the theaters in the big city some 30 miles away, so people griped about it, but paid out their money anyway, even though they might have been one of the donors.
While he updated the theater, installing new seats and improved lighting, he inexplicably failed to update his projector. He continued to operate with a film projector while all the other bigger theaters in the bigger towns converted to digital projectors.
Two years after reopening, he came to the citizens of our town again. He was going to have to close his doors because his equipment was outdated. Most of the movie companies were distributing their films on digital now, not on film. He cited the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, as a movie he would like to have shown but couldn’t because it wasn’t available on film.
The bottom line: He needed $50,000 to upgrade to a digital projection system. Once again, he asked for donations.
Once the projector was installed, prices went to $5 a seat. Once again his way of saying “Thank you” to those who contributed.
Now here it is a little over a year later. He’s supposedly defaulted on some of his loans. The theater is up for sale. The rumor around town last weekend was that this was the theater’s final week. The bank, which held the notes on the place, was tired of waiting on its money, and could come in and shut him down at any moment.
So as the owner struggles to survive (he still lives in a luxurious home in an exclusive neighborhood, drives new vehicles, and continues to finance his wife’s singing career including her tour bus), the main character in The Martian deals with a different kind of struggle to survive.
Matt Damon is Mark Watney, an astronaut who’s part of a six-member crew exploring the surface of Mars. A storm causes them to abort the mission, but Watney is struck by flying debris and the crew leaves him behind, assuming that he’s dead.
He’s not, but no one knows that for about the first 20 to 30 minutes of the movie. While a dejected crew heads for home, NASA officials notice that things are moving around the red planet when they study still photos of the surface. They discover that Watney is alive and devise a way to communicate with him. After establishing contact, they begin to work on a solution to bring him back to Earth.
Unless there is conflict in a movie, it gets boring very fast. English teachers (which I used to be) tell us that there are three kinds of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. self. Obviously the conflict here is man vs. nature, even though nature is Mars’ nature, not our own.
The problem I had with this movie is that even though there is the obvious conflict of how Watney is going to survive until we can send him either provisions or help, director Scott doesn’t do a very good job of creating urgency. It seems that Watney has enough food to last him for a while, and he learns how to grow more in a “greenhouse” that he constructs, so we never really feel that there’s a chance he’ll starve to death.
Watney is presented with a multitude of problems, yet I never got the feeling of a rollercoaster ride like with most “disaster” movies. The peaks and valleys of this particular ride are interesting, yet I never felt the characters were in great danger until near the end of the film.
A good portion of the film is very geeky. I didn’t understand hardly anything about the jet propulsion theories or how scripts were rewritten to override computers. Instead of trying to understand, my brain just switched off and put it in simple terms like, “Oh, he fixed the chat window thing on his computer so he can talk now.” My older brother went to the movie with me and he said that he didn’t need to know all the particulars of “how” either. He was satisfied with just knowing something either worked, or didn’t.
One particularly strong point of the movie is the use of Watney’s video blog. By using this device we get to see his inner thoughts and the apprehension he feels (maybe it’s because he’s got such a positive outlook that I didn’t feel the sense of urgency as mentioned earlier). In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks plays off a volleyball (Wilson) with dialogue; the video blog by Damon works every bit as well and was a major part of the movie.
There were other things that bothered me. Throughout the movie we see clouds in the sky. I always thought you needed water to create water vapor which is what clouds are made out of, so when I got home, I did some research and found out that clouds are possible on other planets despite the absence of water. Had they explained, maybe in one of the video blogs, about the clouds, maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Then again, I may be the only person who cared about it.
Another part of the movie that caused me to make my “yeah, sure” face is during the attempted rescue. Crowds gathered in Times Square, Tiananmen Square, and in London to watch the rescue live on TV.
Sorry, Charlie, but I don’t think crowds gather in Times Square for anything other than a ball dropping once a year. These people would be more likely sitting at home or in their office, following the live broadcast on their smart phones. Crowds like that haven’t gathered since probably World War II.
There is one scene in the movie that may be too intense for kids under about 14. After Watney finds himself marooned, he also finds that he’s been impaled by a satellite antennae. He removes it himself and stitches up the wound, all without the use of anesthesia, and it is pretty graphic. Those with weak stomachs may need to look away. On the plus side, Damon gets to show off his acting chops as he reacts to the pain that he’s putting himself through.
Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, Teddy Sanders, and does a good job. There are times when we’re not sure if he’s a good guy who’s just trying to cover his own ass or if he’s a bad guy who is purposefully sabotaging the mission, and I, for one, was left still guessing as I left the theater.
Chiwetel Ejiofor tackles the role of Vincent Kapoor, the astronauts’ advocate here on Earth. He did an outstanding job showing restrained anger, an emotion that is very easy to overact. More emphasis on his role might have added to the non-existent rollercoaster ride I keep talking about.
I’ve said a lot of negative things about the movie, so you might get the impression that I didn’t like it. Not true. I enjoyed the film, though at times, it dragged enough that it threatened to put me to sleep. I thought the storyline was good, the performances were good, and the ending was more than satisfying. There were just enough little things that bugged me that when thrown together, it sounds like a negative review.
Still, I wanted that rollercoaster ride. I didn’t get it until the very end of the movie (when I did move up to the edge of my seat). It was a better than average movie, but it loses points for the slow parts.
All in all, I’ll give it a B-. I probably won’t rent it on DVD. I would recommend seeing it in the theater if you have any interest because the small screen (even if you’ve got a drive-in movie theater sized TV) just won’t do it justice.