As soon as I saw the trailers for this during “Ant-Man” earlier in the year, I knew I wanted to see it. I’ve always been fascinated with space travel in general and Mars in particular for as long as I can remember!
The film progresses at a good pace with the evacuation of Mars and the abandoning of Mark Watney (Matt Damon) within the first few minutes of the film. Even in these first few minutes, a good, solid team dynamic is set in place so you get the impression these guys would do anything for each other (which becomes relevant later)
After Mark is left behind you get a real feeling of the regret that Commander Shaw (Jessica Chastain) feels at leaving behind one of her crew. Back on Mars, Mark awakes, low on oxygen with a a bad wound from a piece of communications antenna which not only knocked him unconscious but also knocked out his telemetry leaving the rest of the cre
w to assume his death.
Once the initial shock of getting back to the hab(itat) and stabilising the wound is over, Mark shows the initial despair that one would feel in that situation. This is portrayed well by Matt Damon who w
anders around the hab aimlessly wondering what will fail first, his breathing air, his water, his food or the pressurisation of the hab. At this point I did wince as he describes “imploding” if the pressurisation should fail. Although depressurisation wouldn’t cause the classic “explosion” you see on some older films or even the gruesome eye-popping of “Total Recall”, the overwhelming pressure would lead more towards the bodily fluids coming out rather than the body being crushed in so this was a little jarring.
As you can swept along with Mark’s character you can really identify with his thought processes and feelings. He makes a clear
decision to get on with working the problem, and so it’s fascinating to see him work through how to set-up his own greenhouse to grow enough food to survive until the next Mars mission four years hence. He tackles the issues as an engineer/scientist would and doesn’t always succeed. He doesn’t necessarily come across ideas immediately and things don’t magically happen to work out for him.
I particularly enjoyed his finding the Pathfinder probe and using it to communicate with Earth. Again, nothing is simple here with a complex code set-up using the position of the viewing camera in order to receive messages from Earth in order to get written communication established using the Pathfinder as a relay station between the hab/rovers and Earth.
One annoying part was when the airlock blew open and killed all the plants. This had clearly been added for dramatic effect and was a little corny after someone on Earth had just said “Let’s hope nothing goes wrong”. There was no clear indication why the air-lock blew in the first place as it hadn’t been damaged as far as could be told. I did like Mark’s repair to his helmet using duct tape. It was frustrating to watch as pieces got stuck to themselves just as you’d expect rather than coming off in nice easy to stick pieces. Following the depressurisation of the hab, Mark takes refuge in the rover which is a nice nod to the Apollo 13 incident where the LEM was used to support the crew when the main habitation (the CM) was rendered unsafe.
Back on Earth, the political/media ramifications of the whole affair are covered well with Jeff Daniels playing an excellent NASA director, Teddy Sanders. He’s more than a simple two-dimensional pen pusher only concerned with the bottom line but is genuinely trying to do the right thinking to keep the Mars programme running in the long term. Sean Bean also played jaded flight director Mitch Henderson and provided a good contrast to Jeff Daniels’ character as he was more involved with the particular crew and flight itself. Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I’ve loved since “Serenity”), Benedict Wong (Prometheus, Sunshine), Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig and Mackenzie Davis all play other, equally three-dimensional characters who have their own roles to play in the support of the rescue mission. A great touch was the name of the “secret meeting” to discuss the rescue especially with the presence of Sean Bean.
Moving to the Hermes (the ship on which the rest of the Mars crew are returning home) the crew play more of a role in the rescue by “sling-shotting” around the Earth to place it in a free return trajectory to Mars and back. This decision is not made lightly and all the factors are discussed well without a hint of “gung-ho”. However, regarding the Hermes I found the CGI a bit unrealistic here. At times, when people were moving between chambers in weightlessness, their motion didn’t make sense and they were very slightly clunky.
The rendezvous with Mark using the ascent vehicle for the next Mars mission (which is a very real scenario- NASA intends to send equipment to Mars in preparation before sending manned spacecraft) seemed realistic with the crew wrestling with balancing the speed, distance and fuel required to get home. The use of the airlock to decelerate the Hermes was interesting but very convenient that it just managed to slow the craft down enough. The rendezvous got more unrealistic with Mark puncturing his suit and somehow managing to control that air flow in order to make it into contact with Commander Shaw. At that point he was getting a little irritating as he desperately wanted to puncture his suit right from the start and kept going on about it. Orbital rendezvous is far from simply so I’d be surprised if he could eyeball it that accurately. (I recommend getting into Orbiter if you’re interested in the finer points!).
I also found the dynamics unrealistic when Shaw and Watney are at either ends of a tether and starting to spin. As she pulled him in, they should have span faster and faster to conserve angular momentum but this didn’t seem to happen and just seemed to damp out with little effort on Shaw’s part with the MMU. I liked the way that such dynamics were displayed in “Gravity (2013)”
All in all, this was a great film showing how someone might survive on Mars with few supplies. Humans cannot live on much of Earth without clothes, water supplies etc. and so Mars shows this as one step further requiring air and pressure as being required too.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5