Despite being released at the beginning of "awards season," boasting a lengthy runtime, and showcasing an acclaimed cast and director, The Martian is not the Oscar-contender some might be assuming. Ridley Scott's adaption of Andy Weir's popular novel of the same name reverts to a light, jokey tone after a grim opening that culminates with a grueling self-surgery scene that pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. And while one might wish for the film that the opening 15 minutes promise, what we get is an experience that's fun and stylish - though a tad shallow.
Presumed dead after a wild storm, astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars by his crew. With very little means of survival, and even less means of communication, Watney must think of inventive ways to sustain himself on a barren and lonely planet. In the meantime, NASA comes to realize Watney's potential survival (via satellite photos), and attempt to brainstorm possible rescue missions.
Taking cues from Cast Away, Apollo 13, Interstellar, and Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian is a film composed of familiar elements with just enough of its own ideas to create a story that doesn't feel like a rehash. This isn't a boldly original movie, but it's nonetheless, unique.
The Martian plays with a lot of comedy. The gags run at about a 70% success rate, which isn't bad, but it's not great either. The snarky humor of Mark Watney gets old pretty fast, though the strength of the film's premise actually keeps the character from getting annoying. Though as impressive as the scenes on Mars are (both from a visual perspective, and a story-telling perspective), the chaos back home at NASA is actually a lot more fascinating.
The NASA scenes depict a genuinely concerned group of people, some of which are set on rescuing Watney by whatever ludicrous means necessary, and others that have similar hopes, but also wish to keep in mind their level of public approval. The politics at play here are a lot of fun to watch, and provide material that's both more stimulating and more funny than anything that happens on Mars.
Arguably the film's biggest problem is its severe lack of depth. None of the characters (including Watney) are given any kind of arc. They remain the same over the entire movie, never developing or learning, which also hurts the structure of the overall film. A lack of character development isn't necessarily a flaw, but in a film where a man spends an awful lot of time by himself, you would expect to see some kind of character growth. Furthermore, this is an illustration of just how little there is going on beyond what we can immediately see. While the NASA scenes have some lovely social commentary, most of the film is just a lot of surface, with nothing underneath. And that keeps The Martian from reaching the heights of recent sci-fi hits like Gravity or Interstellar.
The cast is a delight, each of them taking advantage of Drew Goddard's sharply written dialogue. Matt Damon as Mark Watney gives a performance that's solid, but doesn't require too much of the actor. This isn't the kind of emotional or even transformative role that Tom Hanks dealt with in Cast Away. This is much more in line with Chris Pratt's character from Guardians of the Galaxy. The supporting cast, primarily Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean, are given the meatier parts, and they excel. Benedict Wong is a memorable highlight in a more comedic role, as is Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig. And by a blessed miracle, Michael Peña is only slightly annoying!
The Martian is light, breezy fun that's effortlessly entertaining. One starts to feel the 140 minute runtime in the last act (though it picks up for a nail-biting, if preposterous finale), and its internal logic doesn't always add up, but the film's charm and talented players make up for that. The Martian is practically destined to become a nerd classic, and it certainly has enough strengths to merit such. And yet, I can only imagine how sublime the experience would have been had it taken this film's sense of humor and style, and combined it with the bold ideas of Interstellar, and the complicated themes of Cast Away.
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