Spirit of famous JFK speech applied to disastrous yet triumphant Mars mission

Spirit of famous JFK speech applied to disastrous yet triumphant Mars mission

‘The Martian’

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain

Directed by: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13


This is easily one of the best movies of the year — a ripping story full of suspense, a super cast, and a director who knows his way around space. Ridley Scott’s usual take on things in space is more dystopian than “The Martian” based on Andy Weir’s bestseller, but that hasn’t stopped him from turning the science and math that are the building blocks of this plot into something fascinating.

Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, crewmember of an exploratory trip to Mars. Everything is routine until a storm blows up quickly on the red planet, threatening to destroy the rocket module — their only way back to the space ship. In the chaos of the storm and the quick departure, Mark is left behind and presumed dead.

Only he’s alive, and now he must, as he puts it, “science the heck out of this thing” until a rescue mission can be launched. Some have called this a nerd thriller because Mark, a botanist, is forced to summon all his science skills to stay alive. Just as in Weir’s book, he must calculate every aspect of his survival while on Earth, NASA officials, led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), try to find a fast and feasible way to bring him home — and it won’t be easy.

For large periods of film time, Damon is on screen alone, problem-solving everything from how to make enough hydration to grow the potato crop that will feed him to figuring out how to get his space rover’s small battery to hold enough juice to get him across the planet to the next mission’s landing site, where he hopes to rendezvous for his rescue.

NASA calls Watney as being “operational,” meaning the training astronauts receive gets them to focus on problem solving instead of panicking. In Drew Goddard’s screenplay, there is a healthy mix of humor and gravitas as the action moves from the space center to the space crew that is now dealing with their guilt about leaving Mark behind, and to Mark as he keeps working each problem to overcome the many obstacles to his survival, all while trying not to think about how hopeless his situation really is. This back and forth occupies most of the film, but the final sequence involving the actual rescue attempt is as hair-raising and tense as any thriller in recent memory. You might have to remind yourself to breathe.

Every aspect of this movie, from the cinematography with its dusty, rouge glow of Mars to the set design of the slightly futuristic NASA headquarters, is first-rate, including Scott’s steady direction. Film techniques have evolved to the point where in movies like “Apollo 13” and the much more recent “Gravity” can depict space travel with such realism that it enhances the whole experience exponentially. This is also true with “The Martian,” and it extends to include the sequences on Mars as well.

Enough can’t be said about the extensive lineup of talent that opted in probably knowing their parts were minimal: Jessica Chastain as the mission’s captain and the rest of her crew played by Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksil Hennie. In addition to Daniels, the NASA crew includes Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and a few other familiar faces who must share the crowded screen.

There is something in Watney’s determination and attitude that is inspiring, and there was a moment in this when I recalled JFK’s 1962 speech given at Rice University regarding the goal to reach the moon by the end of that decade: “We choose to go to the moon and the other things … not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. …”

That’s the spirit of this movie — the best of our energies and skills.