Exile in Dullsville
To borrow a phrase from Real Genius, the problem with Ridley Scott's The Martian is that it's all science and no philosophy. The last two years have seen three big-studio, mega-budget space-exploration movies designed to excite the mind and electrify the nerves. Gravity was the innovative roller coaster, and Interstellar the visually stunning mystery that fizzled with bad answers to great questions. The Martian is a bland crowd-pleaser whose production design is off-the-shelf Scott, whose screenplay is Big Bang Theory nerd pandering, and whose dramatic tension might best be measured on a comparative scale of Burger King commercials. This film is a colossal let-down from lots of talented people who should (and do) know better.
Matt Damon stars as NASA botanist Mark Watney, who is accidentally left behind on Mars after a storm forces his survey crew to abort their mission. He has one year's worth of food and four years to wait for a rescue craft. Back on Earth, NASA head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) bickers with various advisers and underlings (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean among them) about everything from covering up Watney's survival, to mounting an emergency expedition, to keeping Watney's communications secret from his former companions, who are well on their way home.
To their credit, the filmmakers ditch several tropes from disaster-in-space movies (which tend to be body-count pictures wrapped in thinking-person's dialogue), in an effort to defy convention. Often, in these kinds of stories, someone loses their footing on a space walk and disappears into the void; someone accidentally blows up an air-lock. Hell, you don't have to look further than Interstellar to see Matt Damon himself doing one of those things, while also playing a space-crazy astronaut marooned on a desert planet. In painstakingly removing the disaster elements from The Martian, though, Scott and writer Drew Goddard (adapting Andy Weir's novel of the same name) craft a small-scale space movie whose stakes feel as toothless as terrestrial training exercises.
There is zero tension in this film, once you understand what kind of film it is. Were there no such things as trailers or plot synopses, I might have white-knuckled it through the opening scene, in which a fast-moving storm descends upon the survey crew. But I knew that neither Watney nor anyone else on the ship was in real danger, because I was five minutes into a film about a stranded astronaut. I also latched onto a peculiar lack of grit on the astronauts' suits as they made their escape: though billions of computer-generated dust particles and rocks pelted them outside, they strapped into their command-center chairs wearing pristine uniforms and gleaming, un-scuffed helmets. Contrast this to an identical scene in Scott's Alien, which happens well into the movie and offers several lessons in building genuine dread, and The Martian leaves us with a technically well executed scene that feels utterly safe entirely perfunctory--like the previous-episode recaps you skip through on DVR'd TV.
Then there's Mark Watney. I haven't read Weir's book, but as written by Goddard and performed by Damon, he's a brilliant, smug egotist who talks in sub-Whedon hipster dialogue when he's not spouting formulas. He is a device, a science-can-be-funny cipher who would be much more interesting as a human being. It's telling that he apparently has no friends or family back home (aside from two parents we never meet). He records countless videos proclaiming himself the king of Mars, the first person to colonize Mars, the first person to climb such-and-such ridge. He relentlessly teases his captain (Jessica Chastain) about her awful taste in music (disco), and the movie goes out of its way to help Watney run the joke into the ground. We get it, Mark: disco sucks, and anyone who doesn't like what you like is a loser.
In the film's closing scene, he tells a group of students that the key to survival is simply figuring out an equation to fix the problem at hand and move on. It's a spectacularly self-centered attitude, that A) neglects to mention that all of the unfortunate situations Watney found himself in were, in one way or another, the result of his own carelessness and ego, and B) doesn't account for things like chance. This is different than optimism or self-reliance: Watney presupposes that, because he can "science the shit out of this planet", that everything will be okay in the end, no matter how much self-sabotage he indulges in.
Unfortunately, Scott and Goddard buy into their main character's hype. The Martian sails along on a current of setbacks that are tidily resolved almost as soon as they arise. Normally, in films like this, characters lay out elaborate plans and we, the audience, wait with baited breath to see something go wrong during the execution. Not here. People lay out plans, execute them, and everyone comes home safe. Conflict? Here's a Band-Aid, now shut up and move along. How can we ask the returning crew to extend their flight by a year-and-a-half in order to rescue Mark? Easily, since they jump in unanimously without so much as a panic attack or a tear for their families back home.
At two-and-a-half hours, the movie plods along from one smug Facebook video status update to another, occasionally peppering in stunts that are so crazy they're mathematically guaranteed not to work--until, of course, they do. Pairing Goddard with Scott was as grave a mistake as pairing Scott with Damon Lindelof on Prometheus: Goddard is terrific at writing snarky dialogue between characters who exist in heightened realities, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Cabin in the Woods.* But just as Lindelof's penchant for blue-balling audiences with endless, off-the-cuff mysteries bungled Scott's much-anticipated return to the Alien franchise,** Goddard's lack of three-dimensional writing deprives us of a vital connection to the what could have been fascinating material (imagine Ejiofor in the Watney role, facing real obstacles with the comportment of an adult).
The Maritan invites us to think of other movies, specifically two other big-screen big-events now playing in theatres, Everest and The Walk. Those offer harrowing stories based in reality--which means they are loaded with conflict and messy endings. The eighth lead in Everest has more charisma, believability, and entertainment value than what the entire cast of The Martian is called on to work with here. Worse yet, Goddard and Scott render flat the gorgeous cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, whose climactic high-wire scene in The Walk was anything but passé. Splitting my consciousness between other experiences and the one at hand may be unfair to the filmmakers, but it was the only way to cope with having been left for dead in a creatively barren wasteland where hope is as scarce as oxygen.