Everything in The Martian feels a little too convenient, a little too staged in regards to the stories timing. Mark Watney (Matt Damon), the man who’s stranded on mars after his crew thinks him dead, needs to find a way to grow food. He just happens to be a botanist, and his crew just happens to have left behind the exact supplies and guidelines he needs to build a slew of makeshift machines. Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a low-level NASA astronomer, just happens to conjure up the perfect plan to save Watney just before the ticking clock that we’re so often reminded of strikes zero. Despite the fact that The Martian is using its real-life practicality and co-branding with NASA as major selling points, none of these overly cinematic (aka “cheesy”) elements are able to derail the film of its entertainment value. The hilarious dialogue prevents this from happening. As does the gorgeous, layered 3D-photography. Then there’s Matt Damon, who handles the tall task of carrying scenes in which he’s the only character. The Martian is one of those movies where you can overlook its clear flaws because it’s so damn fun to experience (sort of like a certain gigantic blockbuster from this summer).
On one hand, The Martian wants to be a character study, looking at one man’s psyche given prolonged isolation and his upbeat outlook despite the odds of survival being heavily stacked against him. This works to mixed results. Watney is an interesting character, and Damon has never been more charismatic. In the face of almost certain death, he makes sarcastic quips and jokes about how much he hates disco music. Put a Harrison Ford character in the situation of Sandra Bullock from Gravity and you have Damon here. But outside of him being a botanist who isn’t fond of “Turn the Beat Around”, we know nothing about Watney. Why does he stay so positive, especially compared to the other characters in the film? Simply saying he has “the will to live” isn’t enough. I laughed at all of the jokes, but I didn’t buy it for a second.
And on the other hand, The Martian wants to function as an ode to space travel itself. We’re constantly reminded of how the very future of NASA depends on Watney’s rescue. Given the films technical merits and rather interesting scientific exposition, it does a decent enough job of convincing us of the value of exploration. But its handling of NASA politics is very elementary. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA, and despite his best efforts, the character falls into the “angry boss” archetype. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings his wide-eyed gaze to the role of another executive, but he’s simply there to provide checks and balances for Daniels’ character. Kristen Wiig plays a NASA publicist but gets maybe five lines over the entire 140-minute runtime. As a political issue, space travel isn’t as simple as liberals want to fund NASA while conservatives don’t. Why then does this otherwise accurate film treat it as such? Perhaps it’s because NASA itself was heavily involved with the film. Director Ridley Scott consulted the infamous “Dr. Mars” throughout the project. The film was screened to astronauts up in space before anyone else. And if you think NASA releasing its most recent findings on Mars along with 4,000+ images the same weekend this film opened is a coincidence, well, you my friend, are being quite naïve. There’s also a throwaway scene where the Chinese space program comes out of nowhere to save the day –again, a little too convenient for my liking- which is a clear attempt for the expensive blockbuster to tap into an important international market. I get it, I just don’t think the scene was necessary.
A simpler, and less debatable, flaw with The Martian is that it has too many characters. The film’s story is more or less three narratives running parallel of each other. There’s Damon on Mars, the aforementioned NASA employees trying to bring him home, and Damon’s team still in space grappling with the fact that they left him behind. The latter storyline is the one I wish had gotten more attention. Damon’s team is chalk full of pretty and talented movie stars, amongst them- Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, and Kate Mara. They’re all put to waste. They clearly have a nice comradery with Watney, but little of this is shown. Peña is relegated to comedic relief, which is completely unnecessary given Glover provides that on the ground and Damon’s character is funny enough for two movies. I have to believe that some great scenes with the crew were left on the cutting room floor. You don’t cast an actress as great as Chastain and give her a handful of incidental scenes. You just don’t.
I apologize for spending so much time on the bad, seeing as overall I found The Martian to be very good. It’s just that given the universal praise the film is receiving –from both critics and audiences- I felt obligated to not ignore some of its problems. But let’s move on.
The 3D in The Martian is as good as any I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t dumb itself down and rely on objects flying at your face or loud explosions. Using Jordan as practical basis for Mars, Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski do an incredible job of given the landscape depth. When Damon cruises across the planes of the red planet you feel like you’re right alongside him in another vehicle. I’ve never seen a planet in a movie given the careful physical attention that Scott gives Mars here. It was obvious that $100M film like The Martian was going to have the finest visuals money can buy, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that said visuals were more than just extravagant set pieces and run-of-the-mill CGI. Love it or hate it, digitally filmed 3D movies aren’t going anywhere. If every director used the technology as tastefully as Scott does here, I doubt the technology would have as many detractors.
Adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, it’s impressive how the film managed to capture both the books sense of humor and loyalty to being at least somewhat scientifically plausible. The Martian really does make science cool for a few hours. Not that science isn’t cool, you just wouldn’t know it from most films billed as sci-fi (obligatory note on how I “got” Interstellar but just thought it was manipulative bullshit).
The films climax finds Watney’s team attempting to rescue him (trust me, this is not a spoiler). It’s thrilling, well-shot, and genuinely nerve-wracking despite what I said earlier about there not really being anything at stake. That’s what’s so cool about The Martian. It doesn’t matter how bad certain elements of the film are. What it does well -3D camera work, dialogue, Matt Damon- it does extraordinarily well. Maybe when we look back on the film in a few years, watching it on laptops, it will grow stale. But for now, The Martian is ambitious big-budget cinema at its very best and most intelligent. It’s the finest film Ridley Scott has made in at least seven or eight years. It’s a welcome addition to the modern Hollywood space epic renaissance. That’s good enough for my $12.50 (plus an additional $2.50 for 3D).