Space was never not sexy, it just got lost in the background noise over the past few years. But movies like Interstellar and Gravity are generating renewed interest in space with loaded casts and incredible CGI. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is no different.
Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut on a research expedition to Mars, is presumed dead during a storm and his team decides to evacuate without him. Watney isn’t dead. The first act of the movie has him reestablish contact with NASA on Earth, find a food source and keep his sanity while listening to nothing but horrible disco music, the only music his teammates brought for the trip.
Matt Damon does a solid job bringing the character to life. Watney is charming and funny while maintaining a great nerdy streak, which was central to the character in the novel the movie is based on. Damon generates this persona that’s trying to survive a deep isolation that no one can really comprehend, being the only living person on an entire planet.
Scott conveys the loneliness Watney feels with beautiful and extended shots of the Martian dunes and mountains. But it begins to feel like filler after a while, there’s only so many times you can see the same thing over and over again before it loses impact.
The movie follows Watney through a series of log entries, with title cards for each sol, the Martian version of a day. This is interrupted when NASA realizes that Watney is alive and the movie jumps back to Earth for House of Cards esque politicking. NASA tries to balance media relations with creating a viable rescue plan to save Watney. This creates a jarring juxtaposition that takes the audience out of the movie. Just when the isolation of Mars is about to peak, the movie takes you back to Earth for a quirky Donald Glover explaining his plan to save Watney.
Every setback is quickly resolved. Watney faces problems but they aren’t ever something the audience needs to be worried about since the solution is quickly presented and implemented. Running out of food? Watney’s a botanist so he can just grow some potatoes using homemade manure and Martian soil. Can’t build a booster rocket in time? Let’s have NASA make a deal with the Chinese space agency to use one of theirs.
Each twenty minutes has an issue that is quickly resolved by Watney or his friends back on Earth. None of these issues ever feel dangerous. Even the most dire issue, Watney trying to return to Earth isn’t really focused on until the last act.
There just isn’t any breathing room. The characters don’t have arcs. They don’t grow or change, their purpose seems to be to deliver dialogue that leads to the next scene.
Even Watney isn’t a strong character. Scott gives you flashes of a real person, when Watney trembles in fear as a large storm threatens to tear through his makeshift repairs or Watney crying from joy after he speaking to his teammates as they make their journey back to Earth. But these are rare in a nearly two-and-a-half hour movie. Watney is emaciated and covered in sores after surviving on rations for a year, but Damon just shaves his beard and he’s capable of lifting a 400 kilogram nose-cone on his back.
Watney isn’t a character, he’s a representation of human ingenuity and optimism. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s the same character in the movie as it is in the book. I ran through Andy Weir’s 300 page novel in six hours, the science geek in me loved it, the writer didn’t.
The Martian is a Ridley Scott movie that never really goes all out. It’s a tight film; it flows from scene to scene, the science isn’t difficult to follow and the decisions made by characters make total sense. But it lacks the tension that Interstellar or Scott’s Prometheus had, it falls just short of being memorable.
Watch this movie, it’s an entertaining two-and-a-half hours of excellent filmmaking. Don’t expect to remember much of it a few weeks from now, I’m already starting to confuse some of the landscape shots with Fury Road.