By Chaz Lipp
Ridley Scott’s heavily-marketed The Martian is shaping up to be a huge hit ($54 million in its opening weekend) and it’s not hard to see why. Great premise? Check. Talented ensemble cast? Double check. Top-of-the-line special effects? Yes, it has that too. So why does the film fail to leave any kind of lasting impression? Because director Scott (working from a screenplay by Drew Goddard of World War Z) wastes the true potential of all those elements in favor of easy, crowd-pleasing sentiment and sometimes downright silly humor.
The film opens on Mars as the first astronauts on the planet are struggling to blast off in order to escape a punishing wind storm. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by flying debris and is presumed dead by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). No spoiler warning is necessary: not only did Mark survive, he soon proves resourceful enough to solve the many problems inherent in being the only human on a desert planet.
Not unlike Sandra Bullock in Gravity or Tom Hanks in Cast Away, much of The Martian‘s dramatic weight rests on Damon’s shoulders. We see activities at NASA’s command base, led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), but on Mars it’s all up to Mark to captivate us. Damon often overplays the one-liners, which have an annoying way of deflating dramatic tension. Whenever Mark is in trouble, you can count on a wisecrack being moments away. It’s easy-going reassurance that everything’ll turn out just fine—precisely what we don’t need in a movie that shouldn’t let us off the hook so easily.
As Mark works his way through seemingly insurmountable problems with relative ease (even catastrophic accidents don’t set him back all that far), the primary focus on NASA is whether or not to send Commander Lewis’ crew back to Mars. Another manned mission is planned to depart Earth, but not for four years—basic provisions like water and food may not last that long to sustain Mark. While limited communication between Mark and NASA has been established (which provides some moments of humor that actually work), it’s not an ideal scenario for planning a complex rescue.
NASA experts are played by the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean—all of whom stand around waiting for something to do besides furrowing their brows in worry. Even more significantly underwritten are the members of Commander Lewis’ crew, including Sebastian Stan (Captain America), Michael Pena (Ant-Man), and Kate Mara (Fantastic Four). Why bother including so many characters, let alone casting top-level talent to play them, if the Scott isn’t going to provide them with a narrative function?
As Mark works his way through formidable challenges, the lack of any real conflict eventually takes its toll. The indulgent running time of 141 minutes doesn’t help. Some of Mark’s proclamations, including wannabe-catchphrases like “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” “In your face, Neil Armstrong,” and “F*** you, Mars,” function as cheap laugh lines (that last one is a near-verbatim lift from the 2000 Val Kilmer howler, Red Planet). For all the talk of “scientific authenticity” (an alleged virtue that was also used to prop up the similarly weak Interstellar) intended to make The Martian plausible, it really points to the startling lack of imagination that renders the film nearly dramatically inert.
The Martian Images Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox