The Unfettered Critic – November 2015

Mars is an unlucky place to be stranded. The planet awaits, desolate and bleak, offering an environment with no air to breath, no water to drink (well, a little, if recent reports pan out), and no food to eat. The surface is dead. This, of course, makes Mars a lively and fertile landing site for screenwriters to deposit their characters. Which they’ve done a number of times, with varying success.

Last month we suggested that The Martian, from director Ridley Scott, would prove a worthwhile two-plus hours of entertainment. And we were correct! Matt Damon, as stranded astronaut Mark Watney, made us glad we were stranded with him. Unintentionally deserted on the red planet by his NASA crewmates, Watney evaluates his chances for survival and states, “I’m gonna have to science the s*** out of this.” And so he does. By definition this is a science fiction movie, but it’s science fact that moves it along, breathing life into the story, the characters, and the planet itself.

If you jump back half a century, to 1964, you’ll find a movie that’s a close parallel to The Martian. The aptly named Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a re-imagining of the classic novel by Daniel Defoe. Actor Paul Mantee portrays an astronaut studying Mars from orbit. When his ship malfunctions, he’s forced to eject. On the surface he faces many of the same travails that Watney does in The Martian: thirst, hunger, and oxygen deprivation. But rather than using science, the character survives initially by following clues provided by Mona, the lab monkey who accompanied him on the trip, and later, by the arrival of an alien he cleverly names “Friday.” Granted, Robinson Crusoe on Mars isn’t nearly as realistic as The Martian, but if you come upon the DVD, take a look; we think you’ll enjoy it.

Many of the other Mars survival films tend to play like “Ten Little Indians” (as in the children’s nursery rhyme or the Agatha Christie story), with stalwart astronauts/scientists being killed off one at a time. Red Planet (starring Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore and Terrence Stamp), from 2000, starts with a similar premise as the current film. But in this case, science isn’t their friend, as the ship’s helpful robot malfunctions and begins to hunt down and eliminate the characters. Critics at the time reported that the movie had “zero gravity” and suffered from “a decaying orbit.” Ouch.

Mission To Mars, also from 2000, didn’t fare much better. Don Cheadle plays a stranded survivor, while Tim Robbins and Gary Sinise form a rescue team. Together, they learn that Mars may not be so dead after all. One critic called the film “‘Mission impossible’ to watch.” Critical viewers, noting a resemblance to a much-loved earlier film, dubbed it “2001 for Dummies.”

Which brings us back to The Martian. It’s smart. It’s entertaining. It’s realistic. It’s nice to see a film about NASA as an agency that’s back in the exploration business with a budget healthy enough to launch men and women into space. Today’s premier astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, an admitted curmudgeon when it comes to evaluating movies set in outer space, lauds the film for getting “enough of the science right.” That’s high praise for him.

We agree. Most of Matt Damon’s scenes take place on the spectacular Mars sets. But the scenes shot on sets resembling NASA and Jet Propulsion Lab facilities on Earth enhance and even launch much of the excitement.

Having those agencies at hand, of course, means that our Martian’s survival doesn’t depend at all on a monkey named Mona.