Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is not a perfect film, but still great nonetheless, highly recommended. The best part is that it follows the book very closely and sticks to the science of survival for astronaut Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) and the dedication and perseverance of NASA's ground crew and the other members of the Ares 3 team. The one thing I could criticize about the book is that other than Whatney, who was gregarious, all the other characters were nondescript, undeveloped, indistiguishable one from the other. Director Ridley Scott assembled a great cast of supporting players, most notably Jeff Daniels as the director of NASA and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the coordinator of Mars missions. Others might think Jessica Chastain's performance is too restrained, but I felt it was brilliant in its subtlety. She feels guilt over leaving Whatney behind, even before learning that he had survived. Her anguish is revealed in telling facial tics, body movements and tone of voice. A less accomplished actress might have resorted to more flamboyant histrionics. Keep in mind the character is the mission commander, and military, so such stoic resolve is to be expected.
The few things I could criticize about the movie are more in the realm of omission rather than anything actually shown. The severe dust storm at the beginning, which leads to Whatney's injury and the abort of the mission by the other crew members, is well done. And yet throughout the rest of the film the Mars weather is remarkably cooperative to Whatney's efforts. It's been nearly a year since I read the book, and I can't recall if he mentioned any other dust storms or severe conditions. Considering his ordeal lasted over 500 Sols (Martian days), it seems likely he would have experienced less than ideal weather more than once. I can't recall if the final rescue in the book was exactly as filmed, but it's pretty close. They do skip over the section where he loses communication with Earth again due to an accident with the recovered Pathfinder rover. I would like to have seen the rocks laid out in Morse Code messages picked up by satellite imaging, and it's possible that might have been filmed, but they may have felt the movie was long enough already. But, as with the book, it's never boring. Streamlined a bit, maybe unbelievable in a couple of orbital maneuvers, but still not boring.
As I said in my book review, this is obviously fiction, but believable and realistic, something that could conceivably happen. Closer to the real-life drama of Apollo 13 than anything else, proof that man can accomplish just about anything once he sets his mind to it. I probably revealed too many plot details in my book review, but I won't do that here. Instead, I'll just mention the excellent combination of location photography, set design and CGI. This is as realistic as space-based movies can get, and I hope it leads to more of the same. (The Mars Trilogy perhaps?) Just as SF books in the '40s and '50s led many to pursue careers in the sciences, it would be great if this film might inspire others in a similar manner. The movie ends with Whatney addressing a new class of astronaut hopefuls, most of whom were probably inspired by his actions. If current NASA personnel are as dedicated and ingenious as those in this film, and I have no reason to believe they aren't, I feel confident I will live to see a manned landing on Mars (I'm 65). In the movie (and book), NASA has the cooperation of the Chinese space agency in planning the rescue. If that could happen in real life, along with imput from Japan, Europe, India, and any other nation with an active space program, there wouldn't be anything to stop us from accomplishing that goal.
My review of the Novel by Andy Weir
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