Movie Review: The Martian (2015)



by Alan F. Zundel

“The Martian,” a movie about an astronaut struggling to survive on Mars, struggles to maintain its life on the screen. It is kept alive primarily by Matt Damon and the magic of science, despite mortal threats from movie script clichés and a thematic lack of focus.

Andy Weir’s novel of the same name was a surprise best-seller. The story of the book’s success is one that I both love—because it’s a self-published novel that took off when fans discovered it—and hate—due to unmitigated jealousy.

I haven’t read it yet, but now I’d like to find out how much the movie strayed from it. As my daughter said, she liked the movie but wanted to love it. I’m wondering if the book is more worthy of love.

Of course we all love Matt Damon, who plays Mark Watney, a botanist who is a crew member on a NASA mission to Mars. The prospect of rooting for him as he tries to survive an accidental abandonment on the Red Planet sounds like fun, and it is. But that’s when he’s on screen. When he’s not on screen it’s not as much fun.

And that is the biggest problem. To share Watney’s sense of desperation and isolation, we have to stay with him as he confronts his situation and the devastating knowledge that his crew thinks he is dead and is not going to return for him. But the movie keeps cutting away from Watney’s lonely predicament to the people back at NASA, a stereotyped set of characters put through the usual disaster-movie paces.

There’s the head honcho who seems to care more about public relations and finishing the mission than the human beings off in space. There’s the dedicated director who clashes with the head honcho over the ethics of his decisions. There’s the brilliant young science nerd who comes up with a risky plan to save the stranded astronaut. And so on.

The crew of the spaceship that left Watney behind is a little more interesting, but still mostly stereotypes. The intrepid and beautiful commander, the wisecracking regular guy, the geeky computer girl, etc. We’ve seen all these types before, and we know their functions in the story. If you like disaster-rescue movies, this one hits all the marks in a predictable manner.

But that stuff is not the interesting part. The truly compelling part of the story is Watney, left to survive all on his own, way, way out there on another planet. What will he do? How can he obtain enough air, water, and food? How will he overcome setbacks and keep his morale up? We imagine ourselves in his shoes and like to think we’d be as resourceful as he is.

The solutions he contrives to his problem are fascinating, and convey the magic of science: the wonders that can be accomplished by knowing the properties of things we take for granted. Unfortunately, the move lacks confidence in the intrinsic fascination of the science behind Watney’s feats, as it rushes by explanations too fast for the audience (at least this guy) to comprehend, apparently presuming we will find it boring.

But by continually cutting away from Watney’s story we lose the suspense of his struggle to survive, and time becomes so compressed that it seems he is only up there a few days instead of the year or so (I really couldn’t tell) it must have been. I vaguely recall a sci-fi movie from my childhood, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” which, at least from a 12-year’s perspective, did a much better job of focusing on the interesting element of a similar plot.

The thematic focus of “The Martian,” however, wavers between mimicking “Castaway,” “Apollo 13,” and “Star Trek,” never rising to the level of the first two films but edging past the third thanks to Damon’s performance. (In that it is most similar to Sandra Bullock’s star turn in “Gravity.”)

Damon is paid top dollar for a reason, and here he shows how to elevate a script by generating empathy for a character given no back story and few opportunities to interact with other characters. Somehow he manages to make Watney as familiar as a friend or family member. When he breaks down just before his perilous rescue, it is a moving moment.

Other familiar faces, such as Jeff Daniels and Jessica Chastain, are wasted in supporting roles that would fit better in a comic-book superhero movie. Despite her billing, Kristen Wiig is given little to do. None of the supporting players do a bad job, but their roles are as thin as the Martian atmosphere.

Hard to know how much credit or blame to give director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard for the movie’s thematic confusion without knowing the source material, but one thing that almost certainly can’t be laid on the book’s doorstep is the soundtrack, overladen with popular songs from the 1970s. I was confused as to exactly what year was the movie supposed to be set in. Did we reach Mars already and I missed it?

But the special effects were state-of-art and even in 2D lent realism to the scenes on Mars and in outer space. Computer graphics in film have come a long way, thanks of course to the magic of computer science. And I am thankful for that magic.

Because without that and Damon, this movie might have died a lonely death out there.


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