Sunday, January 10, 2016

Video review: "The Martian"

“The Martian” was formulaic, but also innovative. Those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

This space adventure story cribbed its plot from “Gravity,” “Cast Away” and similar tales of a person stranded in an inhospitable location and forced to innovate to stay alive and keep their body, and soul, nourished. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars when a storm forces the evacuation of the rest of his team, who mistake him for dead.

But the film also took the unusual tack – borrowed from the novel by Andy Weir – of making this an incredibly joyful and even humorous journey. Even as we fret about Watney’s chances of living, since it will take any rescue mission years to reach him, we’re charmed by his easy humor and self-awareness.

Talking into video cameras for the sake of the mission logs, Damon makes jokes about becoming a “space pirate” when he borrows some international equipment, and records his efforts to grow food using some ingenious (but gross) techniques.

The film is essentially divided into two halves: the first mostly concentrates on Watney’s struggle to survive, and the second on the NASA scientists back on Earth trying to come up with a way to save him. This structure ends up being very important to the film’s success: we spend an hour getting to know Watney, so we can decide he’s worth the herculean effort to save him in the second hour.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard give us a humanistic disaster flick, filled with just enough darkness and peril for us to appreciate the light and laughter. Sometimes familiar stories can show a new and compelling face with the right turn.

Video extras are decent, though the lack of a definitive making-of documentary or commentary track is a bit vexing. The Blu-ray edition comes with a gag reel, gallery of production still photos, and a half-dozen or so featurettes focusing on translating the novel, casting the film, creating costumes and sets, and more.

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