The Martian shows us where movies are as we approach 2016. Technically, it’s amazing. But the acting? Not much different than what you can see in an ordinary television series. The opening shows us an expedition on Mars being pummeled by a horrific storm. The crew, believing one of their members has been killed by flying debris, aborts their mission and heads back to Earth. They are unaware that the supposedly dead crewmate, botanist Mark Watney, has actually survived. The poor guy wakes up after the storm to find himself alone on Mars.
Watney makes the best of a dire situation. After cauterizing his wounds with what looks like a NASA version of the BeDazzler, he methodically goes about the business of survival, which includes using his own feces to fertilize a makeshift potato patch. He occasionally records his thoughts in a sort of video diary. He’s smart, and mildly witty; if we have to watch a guy grow taters on Mars, we could do worse than Watney.
You see, Watney is not merely an astronaut. He’s a fictional hero, which means he’s stoic and cheeky and self-deprecating. He’s smart enough to create his own water, but he’s also earthy enough to take a swig of his space juice and grumble, “Fuck you, Mars.” Now and then he shows his contemplative side, saying that he doesn’t mind giving his life for something so big and beautiful, and he gets a big kick out of climbing a hill on Mars and realizing he’s the only human to have done it. But these moments are fleeting. The movie keeps cutting back to Earth, where stiff NASA employees argue about the best way to cover up this blunder, and then, in a series of scenes that are surprising dull and long, these same suits debate the best way to rescue Watney, building up to cheesy moments where someone shouts, “Bring our astronaut home!” and “Let’s go get him!”
Though Watney intermittently appears worn out by his ordeal, there’s no real sense of what’s going on in his mind. Is he terrified? Is he depressed? We never know. He’s intent on staying busy, and we’re to believe that his determination to solve his problems is what keeps his emotions in check. Later in the film he says that if you solve enough problems, you can get back home. That’s fine for a NASA bumper sticker, but it’s not especially dramatic. Director Ridley Scott seemed to enjoy the challenge of having no alien menace to upset Watney, but after sitting through several equipment breakdowns and multiple close-ups of Watney eating potatoes, I began yearning for that one-eyed giant that once terrorized the Robinsons on 'Lost in Space'. The planet Mars, which looks like a pink-hued version of northern Israel, is a marvel, but after the initial storm scene it’s not much of an adversary. In fact, for the rest of the movie it appears to be a bright, sunny place, all the better to see Watney’s glittering space suit. He looks suspiciously like Iron Man, which was probably by design, and late in the movie he even compares himself to Iron Man. And like Robert Downey Jr, Watney grows increasingly glib. By the time Watney poses for a photo like the Fonz giving a thumbs up, we realize we’re trapped in a movie that can’t stop itself from being cute.
The real flaw in The Martian is the way it uses its supporting cast. A dozen or so competent actors, including Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig, seem to be acting in a cornball HBO series. These NASA characters are supposed to be among the brightest people in America, yet they speak in a sort of TV hipster slang (“We need air, you know, to keep us from not dying.”) There’s even the obligatory African American nerd (Donald Glover) who is apparently very bright, but sleeps on a couch covered in rubbish and falls down a lot, presumably for comic effect. Wiig, as a media expert, is fidgety and flighty. Are we to believe that NASA hires such ninnies? The astronauts, played by a collection of bright, attractive actors, seem too callow for the Mars gig. It’s as if the cast of 'Friends' has been sent to save Watney. Only Sean Bean, as one of the NASA workers on Earth, rises above the weak script.
The cinematography by veteran Dariusz Wolski can almost overcome the film’s Lifetime network dialog and clichéd characters. Any scene where Watney wanders across the barren planet is breathtaking, and makes one almost weep for the movie that could’ve been. A man alone in the heavens deserves better than a running gag about disco music.
What, more than anything, saves The Martian from being just another expensive piece of bubblegum is the portrayal of Watney by Matt Damon. Somehow, Damon takes the usual character he plays, that of the smart, feisty mutt, and makes a believable astronaut surviving on a strange planet. Along with the Martian scenery, he is the film’s redeeming factor. There’s a memorable scene where he fixes his land rover for a trip that will take over 50 days. He smiles as he rides along, and with nothing more than the way he settles into his seat, he makes us feel the way we do when embarking on any long, uncertain venture. Sometimes it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, and he conveys this with just minimal body language. It’s a brilliant, beautiful scene. The movie could’ve used five or six more just like it. Instead, The Martian doesn’t trust itself. It is compelled throughout to trade in the beauty of Mars for something drearily earthbound.