A dull script and Ridley Scott’s typically mediocre direction don’t hinder this tremendously entertaining space adventure.
The arrival of Winter, on an annual basis, brings with it a new big-budget space drama that wows audiences, bedazzles critics and catches (but proceeds to lose) the attention of Oscar voters. Following Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, both unique and innovative classics, we are on this occasion gifted with Ridley Scott’s hat-in-the-ring: The Martian, a comparatively formulaic astronaut adventure that combines the apparent wit of novelist Andy Weir and apparent charm of Matt Damon into one, ridiculously long, very dumb but thoroughly entertaining blockbuster event.
Damon is Mark Watney. He’s an astronaut, and he’s good at farming. This is all we know about him at the start of the film, and this is still all we know by the end. Damon does his job well, but Watney is a pathetic character, with no dimension whatsoever. He’s basically a perfect human, never even pausing to drink or masturbate during his multi-year solo stint on Mars. Where Interstellar‘s Cooper and Gravity‘s Ryan Stone were passionate, angry and determined, Watney is merely Good At What He Does. As someone who has (thankfully, it seems) never read Andy Weir’s novel, I am unsure whether it is he or screenwriter Drew Goddard that is to blame for Watney’s dullness, or the general lack of colour in the script. The jokes are obvious, poorly-timed and all shown in the trailers. Exchanges between supporting characters, played by some of the finest American actors of our time, are burdened by stereotype and naive delegation (Kristen Wiig, a PR consultant, talks about nothing but the “public’s perception” while Jeff Daniels, NASA Director, is all Government Liaison & No Play. Someone needs to tell Goddard that people can function outside their jobs on occasion).
Equally uninteresting is Scott’s Colour-By-Numbers direction, shoving in landscape and reaction shots arbitrarily. He may have gotten the job done fast and cheap (The Martian completed shooting mere months ago, and its release was pulled forward from November when it came in early and under-budget), but he has done little to give Weir and Goddard’s work any life, leaving the hard work to the cast. Jessica Chastain is wasted in an absurdly small role, and it’s tough to comprehend why she’s in the film at all. The same can be said of Michael Peña, whose role is so flat, it almost makes Mark Watney look like Charles Foster Kane himself. Wiig, Daniels, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Davis fare slightly better, with the bulk of the Legitimately Interesting Drama involving their attempts to contact and save Watney.
Though it has appallingly little aesthetic value compared to its philosophical and profound contemporaries, The Martian does have terrific pacing and a great bucketload of fascinating science prepared to dump in the audience’s laps. For the majority of the first two acts, Watney moves from experiment-to-experiement as he raises his chances of survival through potato-planting, code-tweaking and machine-modifying. It’s “proper educational”, and allows the film to function as a realistic and clean educational package… with added movie stars!
Anyone (*cough* myself *cough*) who expected a weak Interstellar knock-off from The Martian has been proven very wrong: the only occasions on which this film provokes memory of Nolan’s 2014 masterpiece (with which it shares multiple cast members and a basic concept: rescue Matt Damon from a distant planet) is when it fails spectacularly to echo that film’s intensity and emotional complexity. The Martian is essentially a family film; a 1990s Spielberg/Zemeckis man-with-a-plan romp, but it’s one of this sub-sub-genres’ finest products. Now that Mark Watney’s left, there may not be life on mars, but there’s undoubtedly some life in the space drama yet…