What does success look like in 2015? Andy Weir had an idea for a novel: what if an astronaut was left behind and had to survive on Mars? Weir -whose father was a physicist- researched thoroughly as to make his novel as realistic as possible, but publishers were not interested. Finally, he decided to release the novel online in periodical installments. A story as obsessed with science as his was bound to be a big hit on the internet, and before long Weird had a book deal. The Martian became a best-selling novel, and a couple years later, a blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.
Now, Scott hasn’t had a huge hit in a while, and is living off the goodwill generated by a career built on movies that were hugely overrated to begin with (the one exception being the wonderful Thelma & Louise). The truth is Scott seems to be more machine than man, a talented eye for slick visuals, but a soulless robot when it comes to story-telling. The premise behind The Martian is promising, but the movie is almost too perfect for its own good. It hits the necessary notes in the correct order, but the sound that comes out of its instrument is hollow. Scott knows the notes, but he can’t find the meaning behind them.
All of this puts The Martian in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously being a perfectly good movie and a disappointment. This is best exemplified in our main character. Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who is left behind because the rest of the Ares II mission crew believes him to be death after a severe Martian storm. Watney, of course, survives, and must use all of his scientific abilities to keep un surviving while he waits for a rescue mission to reach him. A wait could last four years. At the least.
It’s a familiar set-up that’s been explored by Hollywood before, most notoriously in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, only the stakes are raised by the fact that Watney is in a planet where he would die immediately if he as much as takes off his helmet. There is an inherent satisfaction to seeing a character be put in a position of impossible difficulty, and slowly revealing how they make their way back to safety. That’s what is so appealing about the aforementioned Cast Away, and the best moments of Gravity, the other space survival saga of recent years.
Of course, this structure also presents a number of difficulties. In novels, one can read pages of a character explaining what he plans to do to get out of the mess he’s found himself in, but there are few less cinematic things than having a character explain every single thing he is doing. Cast Away worked around it by having Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball. The Martian has a less whimsical answer: Mark Watney keeps a video diary meant to chronicle his attempt at survival, in case things don’t turn out for the best.
The diary sequences are pretty funny, in no small part thanks to Damon’s charismatic persona, but they are also the moments in which the movie begins to show the strings that hold it together. Watney’s jokey monologues to the camera strain themselves to come in the voice of a Youtube video or a Reddit thread. Lines like “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this” aren’t as funny as they are pandering to a specific audience, and with the transparent purpose of getting us to love this character.
But despite him being the only human on Mars, we do not only spend time with Watney during this movie. There is a fair amount of time spent with the rest of crew that was part of the original Ares III mission that left him for death, and even more time back on Earth, with the Nasa specialists who are desperately trying to find a way to bring him back. With that in mind, the closest cinematic relative to The Martian is neither Cast Away nor Gravity, but Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Howard’s movie also cuts back and forth between a disastrous space mission and the mission control back on earth, and it is also a thriller built around the step-by-step problem-solving that guarantees survival.
Making the comparison between those two movies, however, leaves us with an awkward position in which the biggest compliments we can give The Martian (that it is a story about the power of science and the value of great minds collaborating together) are all things that apply to an even greater extend to Apolo 13. Which isn’t entirely fair, since Apollo 13 is an impeccably well-crafted movie. Perhaps tellingly, the biggest difference between the movies is that Apollo 13 is structured as a race agains the clock, while The Martian is more of an endurance test. Maybe racing is inherently more cinematic than enduring?
This is all ok, though, nothing is particularly wrong with The Martian, and that’s the thing. Everything is fine, just fine, and nothing’s spectacular. It doesn’t mean much that one can predict the ending of a Hollywood movie of this nature -movies based on widely known real-life events can be nail-biters- but this movie’s true weakness is that all of its beats and their outcomes are instantly recognizable. It seems like a movie put together in a lab by a heartless machine. An effective machine, that recognizes what works and puts it in the correct balance, but a machine nonetheless. It doesn’t take risks, it only uses proven logic. The machine’s name, of course, is Ridley Scott.
Grade: 6 out of 10