Sir Ridley Scott churns out films at an almost Woody Allen speed. His filmography boasts two masterpieces in Alien and Blade Runner, the latter being a top 5 favorite film of all time. Everything else falls on a spectrum from “huh good try” to near great. I absolutely love the guy. The Martian finds itself towards the top of Ridley’s totem pole, though a few notches below stuff like Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven (director’s cut), and Thelma and Louise.
The Martian is a rollicking disco fueled space crowd pleaser with the likability of a Charlie Brown episode and the ambition of an Abba song. By that I mean it’s merely meant for you to dance along and have fun with. Where most Ridley Scott’s films often aim to leave us unsettled, The Martian goes for the complete opposite as an unabashedly optimistic survival film. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars after a mission gone wrong where his colleagues were forced to abandon him because they thought he died in a sandstorm. Facing insurmountable odds Mark turns to human ingenuity and science to survive.
Cut backs to earth are frequent between Watney’s scientific problem solving. The Earth scenes are exposition pieces and science problems with suit types, but luckily the warm tone and constantly funny jokes keep these scenes enjoyably light. The supporting cast on Earth includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover while the space crew includes Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Aksel Hennie *BIG EXHALE*. The Earth cast is far and away the better used of the two in both scripting and acting. Largely all of these characters are paper thin on the page but these actors are so talented that it can be fun in a wink wink sort of way. As an ensemble they’re a nice counter to the stranded Mark. A connect the dots ensemble with one goal; Get Mark home. Booming throughout is a real swell disco soundtrack featuring Abba and Bowie.
The tone is innocent with a good amount of chuckles thanks to Drew Goddard’s witty script. The film is a big hug to science and optimism. The problem is a hug like this gets to be way too polite. There is a total absence of psychological realism that plagues the film. Our engagement with Watney goes little beyond observing his ingenuity, jokes and making video messages to send back to Earth. It made me appreciate the use of Wilson in Cast Away as a stroke of masterful storytelling and emotional grounding. There is little of that sort found here. Watney makes jokes more than he seems worried about his situation, which in turn makes the audience unafraid or concerned with the situation. I freak out more when I’m lost driving around in the city.
Watney is the focus and if he’s not scared or concerned with harrowing dilemmas then we certainly will not be. The location of Mars lacks any sort of exoticism. It might as well just be a desert on Earth. The Martian isn’t interested in the adverse effects of isolation but rather making the experience with Watney as appealing as possible. The cut backs to Earth and the crew offer fun quips, but rob us from engaging with Mark beyond his video messages. I counted about 30 seconds of vulnerability from Mark and with an actor of Damon’s magnitude that just seems wrong. The films lack of ambition and realism is my biggest problem. It gives you an optimistic popcorn munching time, but does so at the cost of being anything special.
Scott’s direction does its job for a simple story but I can’t help but be disappointed that I was never left on the edge of my seat or engaged with what was happening. Scenes are sporadically tense but never suspenseful. The third act is like a baloon with air slowly escaping. I was left with a whole lot of “This is enjoyable” or “That was kinda funny” and “Oooh another Abba song!” Point is, The Martian is a big high five to science while being agonizingly simple and by-the-numbers.
A wide net is cast to make to the film accessible for everyone and it meets the minimum requirements to be a good movie. But please don’t mistake my minor disappointment for dislike. It will make lots of money and everyone will enjoy it. I do hope more films of its ilk are made but holy shit take some risks. Scott’s survival space flick is a disco infused updated version of Apollo 13 and a well spent 2 hours at the movies. Though I’d rather just recommend The Right Stuff, the best film about American ingenuity, to those who have never seen it. I just prefer my science fiction and space to films to go beyond being merely crowd pleasing. Push the outside of the envelope dammit! Although perhaps this simplicity will get people to back NASA again. Who knows.
If you’re into space or science then be sure to take this trip to mars and hang out a science bro this weekend. Watney’s ingenuity, Abba and nerdy jokes are where The Martian is able to take off, but a largely unused talented cast and lack of ambition leaves the film floating in orbit as merely a likable crowd pleaser.