Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara
Director: Ridley Scott
Running Time: 2 hours 21 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
"I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."
If the above quote from Matt Damon's wisecracking central protagonist tells us anything about Ridley Scott's The Martian, it's that if one wants to survive on a distant planet by growing potatoes, then steady bowel movements are essential. It also helps if you're a botanist with an aptitude for snarky webcam one-liners and a disdain for disco music. This is all to say that the film, written by Drew Godard from Andy Weir's bestselling 2011 novel, is going for a lighter tone than one might expect. There's none of the palm-sweating calamity of 2013's Gravity or the existential grandeur of last year's Interstellar here; or even, incidentally, the cerebral thoughtfulness of Duncan Jones' 2009 film Moon. Instead, what we have is pretty much the third act of Ron Howard's sentimental crowdpleaser Apollo 13 stretched out to over two hours. This is a movie about human resourcefulness, problem-solving, and the powers of science overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Surprisingly for a Ridley Scott joint, it's also a science fiction film which treats it's science with respect and never dovetails into hokey genre fantasy, though it does contain at least one sequence near the beginning which can charitably be described as "body horror" in the Scott tradition.
Essentially, The Martian is a team-building crisis movie charting the fate of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), whose stuck on Mars after a disastrous storm forces his team to flee the planet. Both his crew (which includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, among others) as well as Nasa employees back on earth, think poor Watney is dead until he's able to make contact through some old fashioned Macgyver-style ingenuity. What follows is a semi-comedic, and lightly dramatic, take on speculative science fiction (the film is set in some vague near future) in which a man uses his wits, intellect, and sarcasm to survive like a modern day Robison Crusoe on an uninhabitable planet. Meanwhile, a bevy of Hollywood stars and character actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean, etc) run around frantically trying to figure out a way to jimmy-rig science in order to bring Watney home. The problem with the film, despite it's amiable team-building bravado, is that there's very little genuine tension to a story that desperately calls out for stakes. As a character, Mark Watney is not only the smartest guy in the room, but also the snarkiest, which leads to multiple scenes of Damon boyishly cracking wise through a series of video-diary sessions. Though it's nice to have Damon's affable presence as the audience surrogate, it also means that there's no exploration of the physical and mental toll a circumstance like this would have on a person, much less any kind of emotional complexity. Certainly, there's something novel about a film which takes a more genial approach to subject matter that could have lead to existential hopelessness or bombastic speechifying, but the alternative is a dramatically inert viewing experience which hits all the expected beats.
The real purpose of The Martian, beyond a Nasa promotional tool, is to stress the unconquerable tenacity of the human spirit anchored by the glorious machinations of scientific facts. This is all well and good, but despite Scott's breathtakingly rendered vistas of Mars's surface landscapes, there's very little awe or wonder to be found here. Everything is structured around the mundane act of problem-solving, but the film (though overly long at 141 minutes), never really gives the audience a good sense of daily life on the planet. Through sped-up montages set to a series of pop songs, we see Watney coming up with solutions to his problems, and though sometimes he does fail, there's never a tactile sense that he's in any imminent danger. Meanwhile, Godard's script seems uninterested in giving us real human beings behaving in a believably human way; but rather, the idea of humans behaving the way they do in big-budget Hollywood films. Watney is a bonafide movie character, using quippy one-liners to deal with an unspeakably insane situation, and his cohorts back on earth, though generally well played by a game cast, never convince us that they're operating in a reality that the film believes actually exists.
What this means is that The Martian will give audiences exactly what they want in exactly the way they want it, which isn't necessarily a problem, but it does speak to the film's lack of conviction. For all the structural problems with something like Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, it nonetheless had ambitions beyond pandering to the middlebrow crowd. With The Martian, Scott dutifully serves up a competently made picture which gestures toward observational behavior and genuine human interaction, but nevertheless fails to convince us of anything beyond American optimism. This kind of populist uplift, incidentally, never feels completely earned since Damon's disco-hating space pirate always seems to have that "In you're face, Neil Armstrong" look of smugness on his face, no matter how dire the circumstances.