For a movie about a guy who gets stranded on an alien planet for a year and a half, Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” (based on the novel by Andy Weir) is extremely positive. If “Gravity” showed how unbelievably terrifying it is to be stranded in space, “The Martian” presents a similar quandary (being stuck on Mars) as a fun challenge. When astronaut/ botanist extraordinaire Mark Watney (Matt Damon) accidently gets left behind by his crew, he doesn’t sit and wallow in his predicament. He springs right into action,--removing part of an antenna that has pierced his side in the mayhem with a pair of pliers--and immediately sorts through the remaining rations, calculating exactly how much food he has and how long it will last him. When he doesn’t have enough he figures out how to grow Martian potatoes in the crew’s leftover Martian habitat (or the “Hab”) by burning Hydrazine to make water. Eventually he’s able to find a rover buried in the Martian desert, which he uses to contact NASA.
“The Martian” is essentially two hours and twenty minutes of problem solving with the central problem being: how can Watney keep himself alive while the good folks at NASA figure out a way to bring him home? There’s no time to sit around and think pessimistic thoughts, not when there are taters to be grown. Always.Think.Positive. Math and science nerds will find much to love here; characters casually throw around scientific terms and complex mathematic formulas. The picture gets into the nitty gritty details of how someone might actually survive on an alien planet for an extended period of time and what the rescue effort would look like. Though, all those fancy words and equations aside, “The Martian” can be distilled down to one simple phrase that even science novices like myself can understand: Yay science! Weir wrote the book to be as scientifically accurate as possible and that deep appreciation of real science (there are no teleportation devices or tractor beams to be found) can be strongly felt throughout the movie.
The movie also benefits from a talented, lively cast and Drew Goddard’s energetic screenplay that’s as full of witty one-liners as it is with science speak. Damon is likable and charismatic as always, selling the action movie survivalist side of Watney as well as the scientist side. We don’t doubt his ability to pull an antenna from his side and stich up the wound and when he says enthusiastically “I’m going to science the F—out of this” it feels genuine. He’s that excited about science. Mark Watney is an action hero for science geeks—super intelligent, able to improvise on the go (he seals up his helmet visor with duct tape) and also handsome and sassy. The rest of the cast, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig, and Sean Bean as various NASA employees working diligently on earth to bring Watney home, all look like they’re having a great time.
Though perhaps everyone is having too great a time. “The Martian” is upbeat and positive to the point where there’s a noticeable lack of tension throughout. In sending people to space there’s always going to be a huge sense of unpredictability; astronauts could spend ten years training and preparing for a mission but if even one thing goes seriously wrong their lives could be in immediate jeopardy. What’s consistently missing from the picture is that
feeling of danger and unpredictability. No matter how smart Watney is and how much training he may have received beforehand, being trapped on an alien planet (where there is no oxygen, among other challenges) with limited resources would be extremely dangerous and unpredictable and yet he acts as if he’s lived on Mars his entire life. The stakes don’t seem high enough; the major setbacks (the seal to the Hab breaking, destroying an entire crop of potatoes, NASA’s failed attempt to send an unmanned shipment of food) are few and far between. Rarely did I feel stressed out during the movie and in fact, I found myself getting bored at times. “Yay science!” may be a great message but to hear it over and over again at the expense of tension or danger, it becomes repetitive and stale.
Another problem, contributing to the lack of tension and unpredictability, is all the talking. Between Watney describing every task he does into his personal camera and the countless discussions at NASA, there’s too much talking and explaining. Everything is laid out in the utmost detail and not just the science. Plot and character details are practically sounded out, while the major setbacks are very clearly telegraphed to the audience. The sequence of the seal to the Hab breaking is preceded by Daniels character saying, “let’s hope nothing goes wrong,” effectively eliminating any suspense. For all the complex math and science equations, “The Martian” is very straightforward—there’s not much room for ambiguity or interpretation, even at the end. The last scene basically reduces the essence of the movie down to one final heavy-handed university lecture.
I have other issues. As strong as the supporting cast is they’re not given a whole lot to do. Even with an over two hour running time most of the secondary characters register as thin and two-dimensional. Everybody at NASA is apparently witty, a genius and entirely selfless, they all sort of blend together. I enjoyed watching “The Martian;” I laughed plenty, the red-orange Martian landscapes are pretty to look at and I found the scientific stuff to be interesting from an outsider’s perspective. Ultimately, however, the movie didn’t stick with me as much as it should have and I have no real burning desire to watch it again.