Author: J.A. Hyde
Date: September 17, 2015

SYNOPSIS: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring "the Martian" home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney's safe return.

Science is cool again!

When protagonist Mark Watney says he’s going to “science the s##t out of” the immense problem facing him in both Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and Ridley Scott’s film of the same name, the audience is holding its collective breath to see what he’ll do. If you’ve read the novel, as I have, you’ll still be caught up in the suspense. That’s the mark of a truly impressive adaptation. From posting chapters for free on his blog, to releasing an Amazon Kindle version for $.99, to being picked up by a publisher, becoming a best-selling hit with readers, to the present film, Andy Weir has ridden the science roller coaster to fame. Ridley Scott’s film remains faithful to the tone of the novel and provides the audience with a roller coaster ride of its own.

Framed within two bits of exposition, the story of an astronaut accidentally abandoned on Mars plays out in the stark landscape of Mars, recreated in the red desert sands of Wadi Rum in Jordan with a little CGI help. Matt Damon adeptly portrays Mark Watney, left behind when his crew believes he’s been killed in a fierce windstorm. They’re aborting their mission and abandoning their “Hab” to return to Earth. Watney, however, survived and has made his way back to the living quarters/lab where he begins a video journal to chronicle his experience for whoever may find it. Thanks to this journal and his suit camera, the audience experiences everything he goes through right along with him.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew members are on their way back to Earth. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) agonizes over leaving Mark’s “body” on Mars while the rest of the crew – Rick Martinez (Micahel Pena), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) – try to make her feel better about it.

Back at NASA Headquarters, chief Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) announces the situation to the press, and PR-woman Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) tries to spin it. Then a satellite picks up movement at the Mars site, and monitor Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) reports it and sets off a frenzy of problem-solving equal to what Mark Watney is experiencing. Systems Manager Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Director Sanders, and the man in charge of the astronauts’ well-being, Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), immediately enter into conflict about what can and should be done.

Watney is unaware he’s been seen and is busy trying to figure out how to produce enough food to last until the next Mars Mission four years down the road, and how to establish some kind of contact with Mission Control. His crewmates, unaware that he’s actually survived, discover that he has when the info is accidentally-on-purpose leaked to them. The NASA and JPL teams are frantically trying to come up with their own solution, when team member Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) comes up with a solution to have the crew return to Mars and rescue Mark.

Side by side with Mark’s sometimes hair-raising struggle to survive, the rest of the narrative unfolds through trying to make Purnell’s solution a reality. The true decision, of course, rests with Mark’s Earth-bound crew members. Will they be willing to risk their own lives to save his? Will the in-fighting within NASA sabotage the whole thing? Can Watney even last long enough to be rescued? Even though I’d read the novel and knew what would happen, I found myself caught up in the suspense of it all. In case you haven’t read the novel, I won’t tell you anything else.

Ironically, with the film opening the first weekend of October, NASA announced on September 28 that flowing salt water has been confirmed on Mars. That discovery should peak everyone’s interest in Mars exploration! Andy Weir has given extensive interviews about his own scientific process in developing the story. He used existing technology and mission plans for source material, but he also used dramatic license to increase tension in the narrative. It’s fiction, after all, even though thousands of people have signed up to be considered for a proposed one-way trip to colonize Mars in the next decade.

Part of The Martian’s appeal is mankind’s enduring fascination with the Red Planet, scrutinized for well over a century by writers and filmmakers alike. Unmanned missions to Mars have only increased that wonder. Andy Weir brought all of that speculation to life in his novel, and Ridley Scott has brought it spectacularly to the screen. - JoAnne Hyde


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