Published on September 29th, 2015 | by Dan Gvozden0
THE MARTIAN – REVIEW
Mars. It seems like every other week the world is rocked by news that something unbelievable is happening on our red-rock, neighboring planet. Even just this week we learned that NASA had discovered running water on the planet, a discovery that could be the first of many clues to the existence of extra-terrestrial life in our solar system. Yes, despite the near defunding of NASA, dozens to companies have rushed to fill in the gap and the likelihood that man will travel to Mars looms closer and closer every day.
Director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian, fast-forwards past our current technological difficulties and begins with man comfortably travelling to Mars and back. A manned crew has established a research base on Mars when an unexpectedly violent dust storm roars its way towards them. The team, consisting of a perfectly balanced diversity of pretty faces (Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, and Michael Peña), quickly rushes back to their remote rocket to escape almost certain death. Unfortunately, Matt Damon’s Mark Watney isn’t fleet footed enough and regrettably finds himself stranded on the red planet while his team, suspecting him dead, hurtles back to Earth.
All seems lost for Mark, the remaining supplies are scant and he has no way to communicate with his team or Houston, until he is reminded that not only is he an expert botanist but also that surviving off of his knowledge of science might actually be fun. Soon Mark is growing potatoes out of human waste, uncovering buried Mars rovers, and putting tarps on everything with the boyish optimism of a Boy Scout. Mark approaches every seemingly impossible experiment in survival with a “this might just kill me” attitude that captures the gung-ho attitude of shows like Jackass and Mythbusters.
Ridley Scott does little to fill these experiments with tension beyond their obvious life and death consequences. Instead, The Martian leans hard into comedy to elevate the dry, nerdiness of the Mark’s pseudo-scientific inventions. Thankfully, Matt Damon is up to the task. The primary reason that Damon’s comedic performance works is that audiences have spent decades watching him onscreen and have learned to read the subtleties of his face and understand his particular brand of dry, earnest humor. A lesser-known and celebrated actor may have been able to match Damon’s performance, but few could bring the star-power necessary make the character connect as quickly with audiences. It’s unfortunate then that Drew Goddard’s script does very little to flesh out exactly who Mark Watney is or why we should care about him.
The same is true for the various supporting cast members, be they in space or back home on Earth. Ridley Scott has assembled a first class ensemble of actors that should make any other film blush, but few ever manage to break out of their clichéd and flat characterizations. Everyone, including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is so caught up being serious that they miss out on all the fun that Damon is having and drag the film down a considerable bit during the latter half of the second act. Only Donald Glover, as a quirky scientist who just might have the answer to bringing Mark Watney home, manages to break free of the gravity that everyone else seems to be bound by with some desperately needed levity.
Additionally, The Martian never takes the time to truly revel in the grandeur typically associated with space travel. Compared against Gravity, The Martian might as well be the blue-collar alternative. Ridley Scott handles almost everything about the production, performances, and story with a workmanly approach, as if producing a film of this scale is second nature to him. Scott is no stranger to space in his filmography, so perhaps this was his attempt to ground the trippy, daring, and genre-defining imagery and tone of his Alien and Blade Runner films. Often, this realistic approach is to The Martian’s benefit, so much of the film feels like a love letter to science primarly because it seems so logical and genuine. Yet, at other times it robs the film of its potentially unique, Martian characteristics; other than the astrophysics, the film could work just as easily with Mark stranded somewhere on Earth.
There is no denying that The Martian is an entertaining and handsome film, stuffed to the brim with all kinds of science wonders designed to inspire the next great innovators. Matt Damon brings Mark Watney to life with all the charm necessary to keep the picture just light enough to escape the trail and error narrative repetition brought on by the film’s nonstop science experiments. However, the film lacks the emotional journey and tension of other recent space-faring adventures like Gravity. The Martian asks audiences to celebrate Mark Watney’s fight to return to Earth but fails to give them a real idea of who he is or what that journey means.