Review – No Ray Walston or Bill Bixby in sight… (“The Martian”)

…or Marvin the Martian or Bugs Bunny for that matter, but it does have absolutely zero science-fictiony elements to it (no talking computers, worm holes, aliens, time portals, etc) and, refreshing as it sounds, no techno-babble jargon that requires you to have a PhD in physics to understand! 

Set 20 years in the future, the Ares III Mars mission is in full swing on the Red Planet with leader Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and her team of eager scientists. But a severe storm forces them to abort their mission and leave, causing one of them, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to be left behind and presumed dead. But, like in a Monty Python movie, he’s not quite dead yet.

Mark was only injured and recovers, owing to his resourceful mind and skill set. But he’s got bigger problems; everyone things he’s dead and he’s only got enough food to sustain him for a few months, so he might as well be dead. Thinking quickly, he sets out to raise potato crops inside his artificial habitat (he IS a botanist, after all) and then try to communicate with NASA.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the head of NASA and engineer Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) find out through Mars satellite imagery that Mark is alive and moving things around on Mars. A little embarrassing after they declared him dead on national TV. We also have NASA flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and spokeswomen Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), who sits around and doesn’t say much. Why is Kristen even in this movie? Her comedic talents are wasted here; she deserves better. But I digress. . .

We ping-pong back and forth from Mars to Earth to find out what everyone is doing. Fortunately, Mark keeps a running dairy of his every move with multiple video cams and serves as narrator as well. He retrofits his Martian rover to go further on solar power and digs up the old 1997 JPL Pathfinder probe that was abandoned on Mars decades ago. A few adjustments here and there and voila!

Soon, regular text communications are set up and Mark finds out that, not only does his crew not know he’s alive, but a food supply probe to him is gonna take months. Sorry! However, in a daring and mutinous move, the crew on board the Ares decide to fly back and rescue Mark. After several disasters and set-backs on Mars and Earth, the rescue mission is a go, and Mark has to rendezvous with the mother-ship, but will he reach them in time?

So much better than the depressing and confusing Interstellar, this clever and down-to-Earth screenplay by Drew Goddard, who also wrote the terrific Cloverfield and Cabin in the Woods, was based on the novel by Andy Weir. Okay, so the plot is easy. . . WAY too easy in how everything that needed to happen just happens without too many problems. Grow potatoes? Okay! Find a 1997 Mars probe in the middle of nowhere and make it work? Easy! Survive explosions and injuries? No problem! There’s even a convenient deus ex machina at precisely the right time. Well, at least there are no aliens!

With the exception of Wiig, the cast is terrific, starting with Matt Damon, the perfect everyman. Stranded alone and talking to his video cam (the audience) like a friend, he balances his humor, honesty, rage, and depression with such style that he makes it look easy. Daniels is in full gruff mode as the head of NASA and Ejiofor is perfect as his polar opposite. Bean is wasted here (like Wiig) as the voice of reason, but it’s nice to see various newbies as realistic JPL employees, especially Benedict Wong as JPL head Bruce Ng.

What makes this movie stand out is the light-hearted approach to the story. Nothing “science-fiction” or too depressing to get in the way of the story to make you to appreciate the dynamics of what Watney had to do to survive. NO HAL-9000 to tell him what to do (or try to kill him), no alien creature hiding in the hills, no fantastic or mysterious discovery that would save his life and help everyone on Earth, and no sinister subplot that threatens to kill Watney and destroy Mars. All in all, it’s a fun, gripping, educational at times, and nonthreatening movie that you can take the kids to, although it DOES have adult language, so…

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Being stranded on Mars sucks. Ask USAF Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) and Colonel Dan McReady (a pre-Batman Adam West).  These two astronauts reach the Red Planet in their spaceship, Mars Gravity Probe 1, but unfortunately they’re forced to eject through their space-escape pods to avoid an imminent collision with a large orbiting meteor. Left alone on Mars, Draper finds McReady’s escape pod, but the Caped Crusader didn’t make it.

Draper finds a cave for shelter and miraculously figures out that if he burns the Martian coal-like rocks for warmth they release breathable oxygen! Well, isn’t that convenient! This allows him to refill his air tanks with a hand pump and to move around in the thin Martian atmosphere. On one of his excursions, he finds their ship mascot, Mona the Capuchin monkey, alive and well (apparently they can breathe the Martian atmosphere. . . who knew?)

Later, Mona leads him to an underground cave pool, which also has edible plant “sausages” growing in drinkable Martian water. Well, so much for food and water, right? But as the days grow into months, Draper begins to crack from the prolonged isolation. He watches helplessly as his mothership orbits the planet as he tries to send out a radio signal to it. But things really get nutty when Draper sees a spaceship descend and land just over the horizon. Believing it might be a rescue ship from Earth, he runs to it, but is shocked to find it’s an alien spacecraft! Worse yet, the alien masters are using humanoid-looking slaves to mine ore from the surface!

One of the slaves (Victor Lundin–looking like a beefy Tarzan in a loin cloth) escapes and runs into Draper, as an alien ship takes chase. They manage to elude capture as the ships depart for the night. Draper names his new acquaintance “Friday,” after the character in Robinson Crusoe, and begins teaching him English. In return, Friday shares his special “air pills”, which provide oxygen. These two develop a friendship and eventually, through avoiding more alien ships and leaving for a dangerous rendezvous point, they are rescued by another U.S. spacecraft.

Written by sci-fi writers Ib Melchoir and John C. Higgins, this film is most remembered for its director, Byron Haskin, who also directed 1953’s magnificent War of the Worlds. He even recycled the same design of the alien war ships in that movie for this movie. Although it didn’t fare too well at the box office, it did better later on TV and VHS rentals. Sure the hokey storyline and ridiculous plot (not to mention it’s many deus ex machina devices) were eye-rolling, but it was well constructed and a real popcorn Saturday-night fun film to watch.

Mantee holds the film together with his rugged good looks and charm, while Lundin, a hulking Neanderthal, pulls off being a fugitive from an alien chain-gang. And Barney the monkey is about as annoying as you might expect and you wish someone would just slice him up for dinner one night. Oh, sorry, did I say that out loud?