The Martian tiptoes around other great films that take on a similar topic.
We love stories of survival against all odds. Like a boy trapped in a well or the Chilean miners imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, there is something transcendent about the persistence of the human spirit in situations of grave peril. It unites us, breaks down partisan politics and ideological divides. In 1970, the country watched riveted as the lives of the men piloting Apollo 13 hung in the balance as NASA tried to bring the craft home. Ron Howard went on to direct a successful adaptation of the fateful mission, a ripped from the headlines tale that featured Tom Hanks recreating the perilous few days where it looked like astronaut James A. Lovell and his crew might not make it back to Earth alive.
In this vein, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Martian, Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, already has a successful pedigree as the director tells the story of an astronaut stranded on the red planet and the men and women who work to bring him back. As Mark Watney (Matt Damon) relies on ingenuity to keep himself alive despite lacking in food and oxygen, the folks at NASA also must figure out how to get him off Mars. This is an old fashioned survival tale gussied up with some cool special effects. But The Martian lacks the gut-punch excitement of Gravity (though boasting a much better script) and the ambition and awe of Interstellar, leaving the film in serviceable limbo where it could have really soared.
Adapted by Drew Goddard, The Martian doesn’t take itself as seriously as Apollo 13. Comic moments pepper the film, including Watney’s own self-aware video diary that he keeps in case he is never rescued. This is some pretty heavy shit, but Goddard lightens the despair with a punchy script that allows Damon to fall back on his charms as the stranded astronaut. It makes sense, especially since his actual chances of survival are quite slim. How miserable would it have been to spend two hours with a character lamenting his fate as he slowly runs out of sustenance and other materials?
But that glibness also detracts from emotionality, giving the entire film a glossy, dejected air that only gives perfunctory credence to the plight and feelings of its characters. Also, Goddard spends a lot of time concentrating on the science that both Watney and NASA use in their respective survival and rescue attempts. This is just fine, but he also inadvertently alienates audience members by both relying too much on hard science and then dumbing it down to appeal to wider audience. So who wins in this sort of situation? No one. Living on Mars or in a space craft has its struggles, but we’re too distracted by the conventionalities of the script to really experience the struggle.
Being rooted in reality does have its benefits. There are no aliens here, and all the peril is possible in outer space as we know it. Scott hasn’t made a good film in years and by being merely solid, The Martian may well be his best in a long time. Damon also does well as Watney, but the role really isn’t a stretch for him. The film is padded with a bevy of recognizable faces, from Jeff Daniels as the grimly embattled head of NASA to Jessica Chastain as Watney’s mission commander. Only Kristen Wiig feels horribly miscast as some NASA suit whose job description is nebulous.
For a film that’s set on Mars, The Martian is fairly pedestrian. Visiting a neighboring planet should be exciting, but things often toe a flat line. Watney may be taking a bunch of giant steps for mankind, but The Martian merely tiptoes around other great films that take on a similar topic.