Over the years, there have been several “man trapped by himself” stories (not sure why it always has to be a man, but…), which include Tom Hanks being isolated on a deserted island in Cast Away, Sam Rockwell marooned on the moon in Moon, and both Robert Redford and Suraj Sharma fighting nature in All Is Lost and Life of Pi, respectively. What all of these movies have in common — besides the obvious — is the overwhelming commentary on the human condition and what it takes to survive, both mentally and physically, when you know your isolated with no chance of rescue. The power of these films comes from the strength of the main characters to overcome the deep wells of their own consciousness and rise above their conflicts in order to find triumph in their pursuit to get back home. Without a strong core, there would be nothing to grab hold of and connect to within the harrowing experiences no sane person would ever want to have to face. Ridley Scott attempts to invoke that same feeling in his new film, The Martian, but although the film as a whole is inspiring and captivating, the turmoil and struggles the main character must face aren’t digested enough to explore the deep sense of loneliness and madness that is tantamount for this type of film.
Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, the botanist of a six-man crew researching the Mars landscape. When a storm hits, the crew leave Watney behind thinking he died during the evacuation. Watney must then do everything in his power to survive on a planet with no food or water until a rescue mission can be hatched — that is, if anyone even realizes he’s still alive. I will give it to Watney; he’s got a great head on his shoulders and knows how to stay calm and cool in such a vexing situation. But is it too cool and collected? Scott, it seems, wants to skirt above the turmoil and angst to keep things as positive as he can. By doing so, he focuses more on the moments of triumph and, except for one major setback, all but ignores any real moments of fear, anger, depression or sorrow. These darker moments would not only help flesh out the character in a way that allows us to really connect with his bravery and aptitude for achieving his milestones, but it would balance the lighter moments and give the overall experience a more satisfying conclusion.
The thing is, Damon takes what he’s given and delivers everything his fuel tank will allow. It may not be the deepest performance he’s ever given, but Damon is innately charismatic, so no matter how rosy and sunny the entire experience may appear, he’s still capable of pulling us in and keeping us invested in his plight. Damon has some terrific moments as he tries to figure out how to produce water or communicate with Earth, but the biggest success of the film is Scott’s decision to employ a narrative device in which Watney records all of his thoughts. Every time we see or hear Watney talk to us through the camera, Damon’s magnetism shines through and helps the film transcend the lack of character development to keep the film flowing quick and graceful.
That is until the focus heads back to Earth and we are subjected to a cast of thinly-drawn characters we probably could have done without. That’s not to take away anything from the cast, including Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but had Scott excised this part of the film and gave that extra time back to exploring more of Watney’s journey, being able to receive the information as Watney receives it may have made for a much tighter, crisper story that would have immersed us even deeper into the psychological toll an adventure like this might have on someone. It turns out that Donald Glover, as the mastermind behind the best way to save Watney, shows more enthusiasm and character traits in his ten minutes of screen time than most of the entire supporting cast combined.
This includes the one-note turns by Jessica Chastain, Micheal Peña, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Kate Mara, who make up the rather boring crew of the Ares III and are absent from nearly the entire middle of the film. Based on a decision by NASA executives, the Ares team is left in the dark about Watney’s fate, which keeps us from seeing any fallout from the decision to leave him, as well as their own personal tolls of space travel. Not to give too much away, but when it’s decided that the team will spend an extra year in space on a mission to rescue Watney, Scott fails to give them any time to contemplate what that actually means. Once again, the deeper wells of the psyche are ignored to stay as lighthearted and upbeat as possible, failing to find the emotional toll these character’s will have to face. Had their been at least one person who was desperate to get back home, but knew saving Watney was the right thing to do, the turmoil and the conversations alone would have given so much more meaning to the mission, not to mention the relationships between the characters. As it stands, saying they’d die for their companions comes off as merely superficial words.
There is a lot to like about The Martian regardless of its flaws (including some of the space stuff, which with the advent of films such as Apollo 13 and Gravity, felt a bit fake and awkward). The acting is good all-around and the science in the film is marvelously done. As we watch how someone might achieve survival on a baron wasteland, which includes Watney utilizing his own excrement as fertilizer to grow potatoes, it becomes clear that the film would have been so much more nourishing had we been given every level of the human emotion rather than just “the Good Parts Version” of everything that happened.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Pan and Steve Jobs. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.