Review: “The Martian”

Matt Damon relaxes on Mars in Ridley Scott's "The Martian."“The Martian,” when it succeeds, does so despite itself. It is a survival-in-space movie almost entirely free of tension, its tone set always to comic relief, its grand imagination and serious plot almost completely ruined by its own sarcasm.

The film stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut in dire straights. After the crew of his ship, the Ares III, make a dire launch to escape a severe Martian storm, Watney is left behind, lost, and presumed dead. So it comes as shock to NASA command to discover that 36 Martian days, or “sols,” later, there are signs of activity at the abandoned space station. Watney, somehow, is alive. The story’s focus then shifts, from Watney alone, plotting and preparing his route to survival and communication, to the flurried decision-making of the NASA command center. Every duct-taped solution Watney comes up with results in near-impossible challenges and complications. It’s up to the NASA team on earth, the astronauts of the Ares III in space, and Watney on Mars to turn one astronaut’s survival into the inevitable: humanity coming together for a rescue mission.

The actors seem miscast, or perhaps that’s just the script’s sensibilities. Everyone throughout the film speaks in zingers plucked from a midnight dorm room gabfest. Jeff Daniels, as the businesslike NASA director Terry Sanders, has his dial stuck on grouchy boss, yet his character’s dialogue comes from the same glib mind as the rest of his team. They’re played by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Head of Mars Missions, Kristen Wiig as the NASA spokeswoman, and Sean Bean. For once, he’s not in the “Sean Bean role,” but a minor yet necessary part as the noble rebel against stolid bureaucracy. Likewise, the crew of the Ares III, headed by Jessica Chastain, follow George Clooney’s character’s lead in “Gravity” and spend the duration of their screen time cracking up over locker room-level in-jokes.

Even more unfortunately, Damon is not a strong enough lead to helm a marquee film like this. Somewhere in a Hollywood Sherwin-Williams, the sample strip for off-white through beige has colors named after Luke Wilson, Sam Worthington, and somewhere in between them, Matt Damon. Worse, Damon’s character is obnoxious — a crass, snarky protagonist. We have to sit helplessly as he loudly munches on his vacuum-sealed space food and tries to comedically chew the sci-fi scenery, cockily shouting “F— you, Mars!” like he is in an online computer game rather than a lone desperate battle for his life, and triumphantly proclaiming how he is going to “science the s— out of” his problems. The immature members of my theater audience ate it up, but it was about as appetizing to me as old Tang.

Contrast this film with “Cast Away,” which, unlike “The Martian,” only tells its story from the main character’s perspective, leaving it a mystery what’s happening back home, and putting the full burden of interest on the lone lead actor. Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland shows the exasperation and wear, his dry throat cracks in desperation as Wilson, his more-than-imaginary volleyball friend, drifts away on the open sea. The first time Noland starts his own fire, it is a real triumph. When he raises his arms and cries out victoriously for all of his uninhabited world to see, we understand that he has taken the first great step in mastering his deserted island, he has prevented the very near possibility of death and regained hope for life. Unlike “The Martian,” Noland’s problems are all painful and crushing and real. When Noland, a FedEx manager with no primitive survival skills, surmounts a challenge, we feel the struggle and rejoice in the accomplishment of a near-impossible feat. Here, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Watney will figure everything out from his arrogant boasting and the way he immediately thinks up solutions and applies them to problems without ever failing.

“The Martian” has also taken the dire straits of another Tom Hanks film, “Apollo 13,” and pushed them to the limits of sci-fi imagination, tackling problems like how to grow a food supply on a dead planet, but it almost completely fails to take into account behavioral science. What happens when a man must live in total isolation with only a farfetched hope that he will ever be rescued? Until the very end there is never a real hint that the extreme stress has cracked Watney’s jaunty demeanor. Would driving for months solo in a Mars rover, for instance, and stopping midday to sleep and sit for hours while the battery recharged not begin to play with a man’s mind and morale?

It is most disappointing that this grandly ambitious film, directed by the venerable Ridley Scott, spent so much on its research and production, yet falls far short of its full artistic trajectory. And even still, the heavy science emphasis is nearly derailed, as the actors give line readings of overlong technical explication in a breezy, offhand way, making the fine details as unintelligible as a plot points in a dense spy movie.

As recently as 2013, Alfonso Cuarón and Sandra Bullock pushed past the initial off-putting dialogue of their film “Gravity” and focused purely on the terrifying ordeal of being stranded in space through a stunning first-person adventure narrative. Ridley Scott, building on Drew Goddard’s screenplay and Andy Weir’s book, had an expanded version of that space survival idea, which makes it a shame that the added plot and character elements do not add up to anything more artistically.

“The Martian” could have been greater than “Gravity,” but it jettisoned its own gravitas.