The Martian gets things going in a hurry: The film opens with a crew of astronauts on Mars, doing sciencey-things like collecting dirt, when a major storm hits. Within minutes, U.S. astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is seemingly killed as the crew flees the Red Planet.
"Seemingly" is the key word, of course, as you might have guessed from the ad campaign imploring NASA to "bring him home." There wouldn’t be much of a film without Mark, whom we watch try to survive on a planet where nothing grows and there is no air and no one will be coming to rescue him for at least four years.
Things aren’t quite as hopeless as all that. While Mark is stuck on Mars trying to make food out of frozen potatoes and human waste, a team of engineers is on Earth trying to piece together a plan to bring him home. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard have managed to turn a series of math equations into exciting filmed entertainment.
I’m not sure how they managed this trick, exactly, but it helps to have assembled one of the better casts in recent memory. Damon is joined in space by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Kate Mara, and guided from the ground by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover, among others. The cast turns what should feel like a hopeless situation into a sort of Rubik’s Cube—something complicated but fun, a brainteaser that you might not be able to noodle through, but your betters in the scientific community could.
The Martian is a hopeful vision of how one could survive for a long time in an unforgiving, alien environment. Scientific trappings notwithstanding, it is also fictional. Everest feels like a far truer tale of life in the extremes.
Journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks the individuals assembled why they have paid Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) vast sums of money to be hauled up the world’s highest peak. None of them has a good answer. They all mutter clichés: "because it’s there," "because I can inspire some kids by showing them that even a common mail man can risk his life for no good reason," etc.
To be honest, my first reaction while walking out of the theater after seeing Everest was "mountain climbers are a-holes." Not because they’re rude or brash, mind you: with the exception of Beck (Josh Brolin)—who you can tell is a jerk because he has a Southern accent and is wearing a Dole-Kemp t-shirt when first we see him—they all seem pretty nice. No, they’re a-holes because they risk their lives and abandon their families in order to engage in what amounts to a masturbatory exercise: climbing a big rock and traveling thousands of feet into the air where, we’re told, your body is literally dying thanks to the lack of oxygen and extreme weather.
Look: I’m all for exploration and achievement. Sending men to Mars is not only cool, it’s also useful. We learn about our solar system and devise ways to implant humanity on another planet so as to spread the human race throughout the cosmos. Similarly, being the first person to climb Everest is a pretty amazing feat. But being the fiftieth? The one hundredth? And only getting up there because a guy who charges a small fortune is holding your hand all the way? Honestly, no one cares about that except for you. Get over yourself.
This isn’t useless in the harmless sort of way that, say, a middle-aged man taking up long distance running in order to prove to himself that he can complete a marathon is useless. As we see in Everest, the real tragedy isn’t that some dopes went up a mountain to die. It’s that they left behind families—wives, unborn children, mothers-to-be, kids that will never see their fathers again.
Everest is gripping enough. The human drama is all too real, while the setting makes for beautiful filmmaking. It’s probably best to view it in IMAX 3D, though the effect is not nearly as impressive as it was for, say, Gravity. Best not to think of it as a story about the strength of the human will, though. This is a tale of hubris and tragedy, a reminder that pushing oneself solely for the point of pushing oneself is not a particularly good use of one’s limited time on this planet.