Directed by Ridley Scott
Opens October 2
Matt Damon has lately spent so much onscreen time in space that one begins to worry about how he’ll reacclimatize to earthbound roles. He dodged flamboyant explosions to infiltrate a posh space station in Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 Elysium, and last year (in an uncredited maxi-cameo) harbored a confusing hidden agenda as the only inhabitant of an uninhabitable planet in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. His latest movie, The Martian, strands him on the more accessible but no less unfriendly intra-galaxy terrain of the Red Planet, his fellow crew having up and left, presuming him dead after his bio-monitor goes kaput during a sandstorm. This plucky ensemble action movie, the moral of which is that you’re in trouble if you’re not troubleshooting, comes courtesy of perennial studio trustee Ridley Scott, himself not far removed from the Alien quasi-prequel Prometheus, a space opera that was bathed in a beautiful blue celestial light, and afflicted with an absolutely jaw-dropping attention deficit. (Sequels to the prequel in the pipe.)
Adapted from Andy Weir’s novel by Cabin in the Woods writer-director Drew Goddard, The Martian is an appreciably more involving and resourceful film than Prometheus—for a time it’s fun to watch Damon’s character, enthusiastically wise-cracking botanist Mark Watney, “science the shit” out of a host of problems, creating water out of a combustible chemistry-lab setup, deriving vital warmth from decaying plutonium, and so on. The tone, however, soon grows annoyingly flip, as the near-future sci-fi conjures up the recent past. Rather than any more enduring examples of the genre, The Martian perhaps most closely resembles the heedless pyrotechnics of the Bruckheimer back catalogue—particularly Michael Bay’s 1998 Armageddon, with its NASA cheerleading and proudly dumb (and entirely unmodulated) comic relief. Watney’s running commentary on the awfulness of disco—the only music he has access to, a cache of instantly recognizable hit singles having been left behind by mission commander Jessica Chastain—has to be one of the most beat-to-death jokes in recent cinema. In a suite of scenes that mostly serve to take this otherwise efficient movie off course, Donald Glover appears as an (ostensibly lovably hapless) on-the-spectrum astrophysicist, rubbing his superiors—and any viewers wary of such deep-dish clichés—the wrong way.
NASA—fronted here by Jeff Daniels, whose war room also hosts Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, and Sean Bean—eventually catches on that Watney’s still alive, and Scott does instill a sense of urgency to the constant timetable revising that ensues once the parties establish contact: how soon can a rescue mission blast off, and how long can Watney subsist on his Turin Horse ration of boiled potatoes? As pure numbers-game suspense, the movie passes inspection, but the relative absence of soul searching, particularly by the protagonist, makes it seem a specious vehicle for the trumpeting of such human (well, substantially American) values as cooperation, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. The story depends on long-shot odds, but nothing here actually feels hard-won. Watney does break down a few times in end-of-the-road frustration, but the height of solitude doesn’t otherwise seem to faze him much—there’s not much desperation to his survive-at-all-costs determination. Mostly he’s content to deliver upbeat TV-host-style explanations of his spacehacks—pretty clever, he has to admit—into his home base’s video log, the content of which would take so long to transmit to Earth that he treats the camera like a companion, if not a confessor. In space, no one can hear you humblebrag. You can feel free to be a little bit insufferable.