Based on the popular Andy Weir novel of the same name, The Martian is the latest film by Ridley Scott, who stages massive blockbusters at an increasingly Woody-Allen-esque pace. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Whatney, an astronaut who is presumed dead and left behind on Mars after a chaotic storm forces his crewmates to flee the Red Planet. With no available way to contact home, his departing astro-buddies or NASA, Mark has to figure out how to “Science the sh*t out of this” situation.
The Martian is not merely Cast Away: Get Your Ass to Mars Edition. In fact, while Damon’s Mark is the lead, the movie has a host of supporting characters filled out by an array of – largely – excellent talent. In between Mark counting his ration of potatoes and reconfiguring various technical doodads, Scott and company show us the people heading back to Earth and those of us still on it. There are bureaucratic NASA heads (Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor), scientists (Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover) and the astronauts that have no clue Mark survived (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and more). It’s a loaded and enjoyable ensemble.
In fact, the whole is loaded and enjoyable; a breezy science-based romp. With a script by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), The Martian has consistently witty dialogue as Matt Damon unleashes his natural charisma over the proceedings. He is distraught, but never quite in a Hanks-ian manner. Talking to a series of cameras to document his possible last days, Damon largely smirks. The gallows humor kicks in right away and he spends more time annoyed about running out of ketchup then fretting his loneliness. Back home, no time is spent with Mark’s family crying. He doesn’t appear to be married and mentions of parents, siblings and the like are mostly non-existent. It’s just people trying to figure out how to get Mark back, if they have the money/backing to and whether or not those that left him behind should know.
If all non-Mark people are simply archetypes, they are all well used ones. Watching this array of nerds, PR reps and colleagues try to unravel solutions for Mark’s return and survival is as engaging as seeing the man on Mars do it. Add to that some well-placed use of ABBA songs and The Martian is a fun romp.
As expected, Scott presents this with ease. The endless, dust-covered nothing of Mars stands as a terrific backdrop to Mark’s struggles. Even in Scott’s lesser affairs, of which there are many, his eye and the production design crews do magnificent work. Mark’s outer-space pad never feels like a set, but a high-tech, occasionally rickety actuality.
Where The Martian falters is in the realm of stakes. Despite a scenario that screams mental anguish and danger, there is largely frivolity. Conversations on Earth are quick and Mark’s anguish is brief. This can be somewhat forgiven. This ground has been thoroughly covered in the past and doesn’t innately require a refresher course. Yet, Mark’s skillset is so potent and the problems so readily solved, the tension is at a distance. The movie remains compelling due to the dialogue and acting, but it does miss true greatness due to this issue.