Posted by : Patrick | October 5, 2015
Let’s get this out of the way right now: The Martian is not about what would happen if an astronaut botanist used science to survive being marooned on Mars. It’s about what would happen if a smarmy know-it-all Jedi was left for dead on the red planet, then sarcasmed the shit out of his situation while coasting toward an inevitable rescue attempt. Logic may run through the physics of the story, but it’s as bloodless as the quippy humans that populate the galaxy. The Martian is fun, sure, but impossible to take seriously, let alone have a sincere emotional reaction to outside of a casual hipster shrug.
After a decent (if a little ridiculous) opening storm sequence that winds up with Mark Watney (Matt Damon) waking up in the dirt, his crew and ship gone and a metal spike sticking out of his lower torso, The Martian immediately shows it has no intentions of either being a realistic survival movie, nor a true celebration of education and intelligence. As botanist Watney performs surgery on himself to remove said spike without any difficulty or explanation as to how in the hell he’s even able to do this, the stage is set for a movie that will continuously offer amazing solutions to horrific problems, yet never bother to respect the audience enough to properly explain them. Trust us kids, this stuff works; we did our research. Of course when a pressurized tarp somehow flaps in winds that from what I understand couldn’t have exceeded 60 mph, or Watney gets a smooth shave from a beard trimmer, I begin to wonder how much effort they put into realism. The thing is, I would’ve loved to actually learn more about how to grow potatoes in Martian soil, or what the mysterious “oxygenator” does to provide Watney with an endless supply of precious air to breathe, but the movie simply glosses over every technological or physical maneuver with a clever witticism and quickly moves on to whatever manufactured problem arises next, denying the audience of the satisfaction of knowledge gained.
As a result The Martian never manages the fascinating problem solving that movies like Apollo 13 or Castaway are loaded with. Those films took time to show the failures of their main characters, and the frustration not only with obstructive shots taken by the universe, but also the struggle of their own minds to overcome each hurdle. We see the process they go through in order to arrive at their eventual conclusions, and thus feel involved, able to at least somewhat understand, and thus admire. With every necessary tool conveniently located on a world 34 million miles from Earth, and a mind that would rival any encyclopedia or genius of the ages, solutions seem like more like inevitabilities for Watney than well-earned achievements. These incredibly lucky coincidences create even more of a distance between us and the already alien scenario, sapping a certain amount of tension from the story, and forcing it to rely on other elements, with mixed results.
The greatest strength of The Martian is its dialogue, peppered with sharp comedy and some decent space talk. Damon wears the right amount of smirk to still be likeable in his casual approach to what would otherwise be soul-crushing blows, and Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA at least emits some gravity to remind us of the serious things going on. You’ll never want to hear the word “sol” shown off so much again, but there are some genuine laughs to be had, and had The Martian decided to go one step further, it could’ve been a decent comedy, even a spoof. From Donald Glover’s over-the-top autistic space dynamics whiz kid, dressing like a cast member of The Big Bang Theory, to Kristen Wiig’s perfectly timed cringes punctuating whatever one-liner her colleagues make, everyone seems to be having a good time. Loyal cowboy astronauts that belong in Armageddon 2: Space Strikes Back make sure we never veer too far from the fiction part of the genre, and the behavior of a suddenly enrapt world populace borders on hilarity. This is totally fine if all you’re selling is cosmos-lite, but the problem is that later on we’re actually supposed to care, and the previous hour and a half of nonchalance has effectively rendered any emotional connection to the material dead. Why should anything they do matter to us, when the consequences to this point haven’t mattered to them? It’s not like anybody is acting like a real human, or a logical scientist, or a highly trained and mentally tough space explorer. Nobody sees any universal truth, just a fairy-tale ending. Very scientific.
And so most aspects of the plot of The Martian that could’ve been interesting are snuffed out by the imaginary. Watney, who for some reason is as muscularly ripped as a Hollywood action star (just like Buzz Aldrin was, I’m sure) never shows the slightest amount of fatigue or mental degeneration from a rationed diet or length of isolation. He gets thin, but never weak, which totally makes sense. He talks to the camera, but the lack of interaction never plucks any mental strings. The guy is a rock; as much of an Earthling as Superman. Tom Hanks arguing with a volleyball may have seemed silly at first, but it was a brilliant device that showed how even a tough, logical brain can get a little socially soft with nothing pushing against it. What are the genuine psychological effects being four years away from any other living thing would have on a person? I suppose that would mean having to go somewhere that wasn’t popcorn. How would NASA realistically deal with the emergency situation of one stranded human being the risk of sending others? I mean, as opposed to worrying their pretty heads over how news of Watney’s survival would affect his returning crewmates. Instead of hard decision-making and pragmatism, officials argue over whether or not relevant information could hurt someone’s feelings. Boy, I sure could’ve listened to that debate amongst what are supposed to be rational people for hours. Good things we have such professionals running these billion-dollar operations.
Oh, am I getting sarcastic? Well, I understand that can be annoying, so I’ll try to be heartfelt. It’s disappointing when a film sacrifices a story premise loaded with dramatic potential and informational value for a more humorous take that doesn’t help, but actually undermines its substance. The Martian fades as quickly and easily as the five hundred-odd sols seem to go by, buried in red dust and likely forgotten. However, if all you’re looking for is two hours of actors having a good wank with their lines, some decent Mars scenery, and bubble gum science, go ahead and blast off.
My Rating: 2 out of 4