(SPOILERS) Reactions to The Martian appear to be generally laudatory, along the lines that (Sir) Ridley Scott has gone and done it again, even if that again is a decade and a half since his last all-round-acclaimed picture. There’s no doubting The Martian is an accomplished picture, expertly made and equipped with a solid script from Drew Goddard (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel). But it’s also overlong and frequently cheesy in choice of dialogue, musical cues and presentation of science to the great unwashed. Crucially, despite an invested performance from Matt Damon, the movie never really gets under the skin of its protagonist marooned on an alien planet. The picture always has somewhere else to go or something else that needs to happen, in fulfilment of its mission to remain relentlessly upbeat.
Some have already suggested this picture succeeds where wannabes Gravity or Interstellar fail, but I’m not really sure it does. Or rather, I’m not sure maligning those pictures, also replete with faults just different ones, is in the movie’s favour. The Martian sets up a very limited, stable agenda and proceeds to work through it scrupulously; as such, there’s something very mechanical about its processes. This is a movie so pedestrian in scope, it even has the gall to appropriate Bowie’s Starman without a trace of irony.
Apparently, much of the style of humour and pop culture referencing of The Martian is present in the novel. Perhaps that’s what attracted Goddard, a veteran of Buffy and Angel, to adapt it. The characterisation of Damon’s doggedly upbeat Martian landscape gardener Mark Watney positively reeks of the glib repartee abundant in Joss Whedon’s oeuvre. This sort of snappy patter wouldn’t be out of place in Avengers, where you can spot an oh-so clever Whedon line a mile off (because most of them are interchangeable between characters), and often thinks it’s funny than it actually is.
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been a big fan of Whedon’s work in the past, but his approach very much is not an all-purpose fits all, not if you seeking to eke out any sense of depth. There’s a thin line between natural brio and a smug smartass, and Watney frequently topples over the wrong side. Whether it’s his overdone griping about the ‘70s disco collection of Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), complete with the unendearing smearing of hits across the soundtrack (and why would the only watchable media be Happy Days; surely they’d at least have The Wire – come to think of it, where’s all Watney’s music and movies?), or his self-satisfied claim to be a pirate, or the aggravatingly cocky “In your face, Neil Armstrong!” this kind of dialogue only emphasises the distinction between what the picture needs and what it has; any real sense of resonance resulting from Watney’s plight.
Because it’s a good basic premise, Castaway on Mars (even if it’s been done several times before; Marooned, Robinson Crusoe on Mars). And, when it comes to the set pieces, Scott more than comes up with the goods. In particular, the opening lift off amid a Martian storm offers edge-of-the-seat thrills of the first order. But Scott’s staunchly methodical approach, which has been his only approach post-Gladiator career resurgence, cannot furnish the material with anything more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
The screenplay is geared to piling event after event, be it on Mars, the Hermes, or back at Mission Control, so there’s no time for the implications to sink in, less still any kind of existential musing (well, one character asks another if he believes in God at one point, but it’s only in service of trotting out the most inane of clichés that they are going to need all the help they can get).
Whilst we are shown Watney growing crops, talking to camera, communicating with NASA, even experiencing a down-in-the-dumps moment after (in another gripping scene) he loses his careful nurtured tatties, there’s a sense this is only ever surface detail. He has no real interior life, nor is there an appreciation of long empty stretches of time passing in isolation, partly because Scott has no interest in such things but also because the screenplay is compelled to get us onto the next incident of problem solving.
I get that Watney is an irrepressibly positive guy, the guy who “never stopped fighting to make it home” and so isn’t going to dwell on the negative if he can help it, but it’s a trait that becomes irksome rather than endearing after a certain point and works against really rooting for him (of course Damon, in contrast to Watney, has discovered over the least few weeks that sometimes its better to nurse a well-considered comment rather than leap right in there and have it picked apart by all-comers). Additionally, while it ensures the viewer remains invested in the plot, switching perspectives to Earth or the Hermes means we’re induced to forget about Watney for significant sections. Ultimately, your appreciation of The Martian will be significantly impacted by your tolerance levels for Matt being really chummy.
A gradual air of predictability also creeps in to the proceedings, something you want to avoid in a picture extending well over the two-hour mark, such that you’re willing it to wrap things up long before Scott (notorious for keeping things long/epic/over-indulged) is ready. It’s telling he’s got a 20-minute longer cut in the offing.
One thing the school of Whedon tends to do well is define its characters economically. As such, there’s never any danger that everyone here (and there are quite a few in the mix) will get lost in the throng. Some of them veer too far into cliché territory (notably Sean Bean’s Mitch Henderson), and with others you can hear Weir’s/Goddard’s geek talking through them (The Lord of the Rings, Iron Man) or furnished with standard smart mouth dialogue (when mostly earnest Chiwetel Ejiofor starts cracking wise) but mostly they are cast are able to make themselves clearly known in a few short strokes. In particular, Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Michael Peña (surely officially now the most loved supporting player in movies today) stand out.
Several newcomers make an impression too, for reasons good and bad. Mackenzie Davis is surely a next big young thing as the young NASA operative who establishes the fact of Watley’s survival. However, Donald Glover is supposed to be the adorably eccentric nerd (who works out how Watley can be rescued) but has a big sign hanging around his neck saying “self-consciously aspergic whacky guy”.
His character (Rich Purnell) also delivers one of series of “explain it in English” lectures on the science of what is planned at any given point that become increasingly patronising. He posits Daniels and Kristen Wiig as planets and a plots a course between them. Later we get bloody Lewis explaining a manoeuvre to her crew with salt and pepper pots. I never had an enormous amount of patience with MacGyver (although I didn’t mind Burn Notice doing it so much), and The Martian’s persistence in lacing its plot with problems its characters must “science the shit out of” becomes a crutch that could have been avoided, since initially, when its confined to Watney, it’s diverting and engrossing.
Many of these scenes are very good, from his attempts to refine water and grow a crop, to retrieving the Mars Pathfinder and then setting up effective communication with Mission Control. Even the red herring of trying to make it to the planned site of the future Ares 4 mission intrigues. Athough, even if feasible, sitting next to decaying Plutonium in order to keep warm surely can’t be a rational or sensible decision if one wants any kind of lifespan (I was similarly askance that he would settle for a sheet of polythene protecting his delicate environment in the crippled Mars base).
On Earth too, the political manoeuvring of Daniel’s Teddy Sanders, whom Goddard pulls back from making an outright villain but ensures is cynically calculated when it comes to key decisions, avoids everyone being sickeningly well-meaning (even if, ultimately, Sanders is). I also like the Chinese coming to the rescue. Less commendably, every other scene seems to consist of someone telling someone else “You have to do it faster than that!” Then there’s the “all for one” decision of the Ares 3 crew, which can’t avoid being corny through and through, but less so than the cheese-laden global vigil for their rendezvous with Watney.
While much has been proclaimed about the scientific accuracy of the picture, I found myself shaking my head in disbelief during the climax when Watney uses the forced depressurisation of his spacesuit to let out just enough of a little tommy squeaker to direct him into the arms of his nurturing commander. Until that point, the rescue mission finale is first rate (the aforementioned gathered crowds watching on TV aside; as if anyone these days could be bothered to get out of bed – it’s almost as if the space race never died, and people still get about space travel excited just like they did in the ‘60s…)
Where does The Martian stand in the Mars-related pantheon? Obviously, it can wear its scientific accuracy as a badge of pride, which it has done ad nauseam to anyone who will pay attention, although Corey Goode might have a thing or two to say about the planet being otherwise uninhabited during Matt’s tenure there. To be honest, while I haven’t revisited them since, I found both the much-maligned Mission to Mars and Red Planet quite watchable. But most of them, even Total Recall, Capricorn One and Mars Attacks! fail to achieve greatness (John Carter falls into the okay but somewhat lacking camp). Some special cases (Ghosts of Mars) downright stink. This one, it doesn't shame them, but it's in no way leading the pack.
Scott’s visual prowess is never less than evident here, from the stylishly designed Mars climate suits (up there with those from Prometheus) to the Kubrick-variant artificial gravity spacecraft. I’m unconvinced the natural 3D adds much to the experience though, a couple of shots aside. And it’s quite clear the old boy is going through the motions with the soundtrack, which is disappointing. Harry Gregson-Williams score is an improvement on Prometheus, but this is a director who once had Vangelis and Tangerine Dream making his movies’ music as influential as the images he conjured. As for the pop-tastic tunes, one montage set to Abba’s Waterloo (following the Starman montage) is one redundant montage too many.
If nothing else, The Martian is evidence that these days Scott is only as good as his next screenplay. Which makes this a decent, agreeable movie, but conversely not nearly as interesting and peculiar as the flawed The Counselor. Keep at it, Sir Ridders, you might yet get someone to write you a bona fide classic during your ninth decade.