The Martian full movie review - Commendably slow-paced, but emotionally inert
I am at a loss. At a loss, I tell you, to understand how a film about an astronaut stranded on Mars can be so emotionally inert, not to mention unfulfilling.
And before you say 'well, you just can't appreciate a slow-moving sci-fi film', I'll have you know that Kubrick's 2001 is one of my favorite films. I went into The Martian already with a slight hesitation, because I felt Ridley Scott's Prometheus was kind of a letdown, but nothing prepared me for this. I'm increasingly starting to entertain the notion that Scott's recent work hide their inherent lack of substance with lots of flash and production design. After all, something that looks so good can't be that bad, right...right? Anyway, let's start at the very beginning.
The film opens with that fateful mission that the trailer already told us will fail. Matt Damon ends up stranded on Mars. After briefly contemplating existence, he decides to do what he can to survive and eventually succeeds in making contact with NASA. And so begins the race against time to 'bring him home'.
Let's just start with what The Martian does well: setting. For a film that takes place primarily on Mars, it's in its best interest, of course, to look spectacular. And that The Martian does. From the visual effects to the production design, everything looks great to my layman eyes. Ridley Scott's films have always looked impressive and The Martian is no exception.
Now that we got that out of the way, let's get to the interesting stuff: story, characters, or something resembling these. Bluntly put, I found this film emotionally inert. While there are some great scenes, I found it very hard to care for Watney's predicament. You'd think you'd be rooting for him and while I felt tense, it was only in a general sense: 'gee, I sure hope the main character makes it.' One of the contributing factors is I think the casting of Matt Damon. While Matt Damon's fine, the casting choice itself doesn't exactly make you consider the possibility he might actually die. Combine that with the generally upbeat script and you've got a film that has all the unbridled drama of a high school play. This film has been called a cross between Apollo 13 and Cast Away and that comparison works only when you remove any and all emotional impact out of the equation. Watney talking about his family, his team leader being depressed about leaving him behind; nothing tugs at my heartstrings.
Speaking of the script, I haven't read the original story, but I've read that Watney's knack for humor was already present in the source material...and how could it not be? The film lays such emphasis on his verbal wit that it couldn't possibly have been made up by the writer. So, the film's at least faithful to the source material, but at what cost? We've got a film with an incredibly dramatic setup, but where many scenes involve Watney talking to the camera, while munching on some potatoes. It's fine for the occasional joke and it makes sense given Watney's predicament (jokes reduce stress), but you start including too many jokes and before you know it, all drama and tension have been sucked out of the plot. The comedy itself is horrendous as well, 'sensible chuckle' material at best. What does it say about your film's level of comedy when your most clever joke involves Sean Bean and a Lord of the Rings reference? And what about that last minute romance between what's-her-name (Kate Mara) and her colleague, what's-his-name? Why the need to jam that into your screenplay at the last second? We get one scene where these two inconsequential characters glance at each other and then later she kisses him on the helmet and the movie acts like we're supposed to care about these walking pieces of cardboard. Oh, and we get an epilogue featuring them and their newborn child. The screenwriter must've thought the film needed something to generate some actual emotion. If so, it's a little late for that! So, what do we end up with? What does the script do well? The science, of course. Now, I'm not saying the film is 100% scientifically accurate. All I'm saying is that it usually presents it in a fun way. Watching Watney create water, make contact with NASA and so on is pretty engaging and it involves you in his problem-solving process.
One more thing: the actors. Scott has assembled a talented cast. No question. However, as always, problems present themselves. This is one of those cases where too many familiar faces just hurt the film's intended impact. It wants to paint this realistic portrait of how NASA functions, but it does it with too many stars. It reaches for the stars with too many stars, so to speak. You've got Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, etc. You think that's enough!? Too many familiar faces = less realism, tension and immersion. Oh, and can we also get Donald Glover to play the nerd with the brilliant plan, but who can't walk five meters without tripping over his own feet? Because, you know, this film wasn't unfunny enough. At the time, I was thinking to myself, 'man, this movie is starting to drag. If only it had Donald Glover literally stumbling from one scene to the next. That could really liven up the proceedings and generate some real tension'...
If the novel was intended as a geeky, fun, thrilling read, then I guess The Martian is as faithful an adaptation as we're going to get. The problem is that it tries desperately to make the drama fulfilling as well, but to no avail. Oh well, at least I got some nice visuals and sound design out of it. The sound of screws bobbing against Watney's helmet was pretty cool in a doesn't-add-anything-to-the-story kind of way.