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The Martian Movie Review

The Martian (2015) movie poster The Martian

Theatrical Release: October 2, 2015 / Running Time: 141 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Ridley Scott / Writers: Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (novel)

Cast: Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Commander Lewis), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dr. Vincent Kapoor), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Michael Peρa (Rick Martinez), Kate Mara (Beth Johanssen), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Sebastian Stan (Chris Beck), Aksel Hennie (Alex Vogel), Donald Glover (Rich Purnell), Mackenzie Davis (Mindy Park)


The Martian returns director Ridley Scott to science fiction, the genre on which he has had his greatest impact with Alien, Blade Runner, and Prometheus.
Arriving as it does in the fall, this adaptation of Andy Weir's identically-titled, self-published 2011 novel invites comparisons to two of the best and most appreciated films of the past two years: 2013's Gravity and last year's Interstellar. Like Gravity, this film involves an astronaut getting stranded and having to fight extreme conditions to survive far from Earth with no hope of immediate help. Like Interstellar, it casts Matt Damon as a man left alone on another planet and Jessica Chastain in a supporting role.

Scott's legacy and these similarities have raised expectations for The Martian to potentially be the must-see movie of this autumn. Unfortunately, that sets the film up for disappointment. Not only does this lack the soulful curiosity of Interstellar, the taut, gripping human story of Gravity, and the technical splendor of both, but in tone and execution, it most reminds one of nearly twenty-year-old blockbusters like Armageddon and Independence Day.

Disaster strikes early in The Martian, when a massive dust storm is discovered to have major impact on the crew of the Ares 3, a manned mission observing one of Mars' planes. Botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from the others and presumed dead when he can't be found in the debris and his suit stops reporting his biometrics. NASA's director (Jeff Daniels) delivers a solemn eulogy and Watney's fellow Ares scientists (Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peρa, Sebastian Stan, and Aksel Hennie) are shaken up. But, as you already know, Watney is not really dead. A freak accident preserved his oxygen supply by keeping his suit sealed.

"The Martian" stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a NASA botanist trying to survive as the only living man on Mars.

When he comes to, Watney discovers he's all alone and nearly out of oxygen. Though he reaches safety and removes the shrapnel from his life-saving wound (a wince-inducing self-surgery), the relief is short-lived as Watney realizes he's almost certain to run out of food, water, or breathable air long before anyone back home could reach Mars and attempt a rescue mission. For starters, he has no communication link to anyone. There's also the fact that no one either believes he could still be alive or is actively looking for his remains. Nonetheless, the mission's dutiful director (Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing Indian apparently) provides coordinates for the area where Watney was last spotted, which leads to satellite imagery showing activity suggesting he is still alive.

Establishing a communication link is a challenge that initially involves hand-written signs, an ASCII wheel of characters, and a rotating still camera from the '90s. Eventually, Watney gets to chatting with his peers and discovering what their plan to retrieve him is. Meanwhile, the forward-thinking botanist makes use of his and his fellow astronauts' feces to plant potatoes that should extend his resources further than the year or so they could sustain him with nonperishables rationing. Gardening on Mars requires demanding and dangerous processes to create water, but Watney is up to the task.

A stranded astronaut's struggle to survive on the Red Planet sounds like serious stuff and even his work in other genres (including Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and American Gangster) hasn't shown Scott to have much of a light side. Surprisingly, though, The Martian plays very comedically. Rather than the harrowing solitude experienced by Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and Will Smith in I Am Legend, Damon gets to play snarky in self-documenting mission log videos he makes for no one else's immediate viewing. Watney makes fun of the disco music his commander (Chastain) has left behind, strikes a Fonzie thumbs-up poses for an official picture, and jokes about being a space pirate.

Damon has comedy chops, which he has shown on occasion, perhaps most effectively on Ocean's Eleven. But he can't make this material, which feels like a Reddit discussion, work. Surely there is cathartic value in comedy when faced with a dire situation, but the movie somehow completely fails to convey the psychological weight of being so helpless so far from home. (A scene attempting to do that is too little, too late.) Nor does it even demonstrate the physical toll that trying to live on a potato and a third of bread would take on a person. Laughably, we are twice asked to accept a super skinny stand-in for Damon that bears no resemblance to the actor in subsequent shots. (Guess the actor, reportedly paid $25 million for this role, wasn't prepared to go all Christian Bale and lose the weight only to gain it back for his next Bourne movie.)

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) keeps count of the "sols" (days) he has spent stranded on Mars. Media relations director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and Mars missions director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are among those at NASA trying to rescue Mark Watney while keeping the public's expectations in check.

Neither Damon nor Scott nor screenwriter Drew Goddard ("Lost", Cloverfield, World War Z) seems to fully commit to this project. The talent assembled in front of the camera impresses;
in Damon, Chastain, and Ejiofor, Scott has three of the most respected actors of their generation. But it doesn't matter when we're consistently reminded of Armageddon, a film that itself had a number of recent/future Oscar winners/nominees (including Damon's famous bestie) and a host of actors known for their work with respected auteurs like the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson.

Armageddon was a huge hit, second only eventually to Saving Private Ryan among the movies of 1998. Early teenaged me insisted on seeing it in theaters and quite enjoyed it. It still holds a place in my nostalgic heart and in my far too big DVD collection. But critically derided blockbusters of a generation earlier are typically not what you want a new film to play like, certainly not a new Ridley Scott film that looks the successor of Gravity and Interstellar. I'm skeptical that any 2015 release can disappoint to the extent that this does, as it wastes appealing comedians like Kristen Wiig and Donald Glover, drowns us in songs by ABBA and Donna Summers, asks actors to be endless fountains of scientific exposition, and takes egregious pains to keep a PG-13 rating by masking half a dozen uses of the F-word to conform to the MPAA's profanity limits. The Martian would underwhelm from any filmmaker, but it stings a little worse from Scott, the rare director to maintain authority and an edge into his late 70s. This feels beneath him and beneath alumni of Interstellar, who seem much too hasty to return to such content less than a year later.

Originally intended to open on the eve of Thanksgiving, The Martian was pushed up to today, swapping places with Victor Frankenstein and getting lighter competition as a result. Eight weeks might not seem like a huge difference but they should be enough to stop anyone from treating this film like a serious awards contender. A nine-figure budget and being set primarily on a planet on which no human being has set foot should mean the movie at least dazzles visually, but even that would be an overstatement, with tacky persistent identifying captions making a bigger impression than the unremarkable compositions and vast CG-aided terrains of Jordan and Hungary that stand in for the Red Planet.

Overlong, overly conventional, intellectually underwhelming, and emotionally hollow, The Martian does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the latest films by Alfonso Cuarσn and Christopher Nolan. At best, it encourages new viewings of the likes of Armageddon and Deep Impact to determine if it's really as ungraceful as we remember those to be.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Everest • Black Mass • Sicario • Pawn Sacrifice • The Intern
Space and Survival: Interstellar • Gravity • Armageddon • John Carter • 127 Hours
Directed by Ridley Scott: Body of Lies • The Counselor • Matchstick Men
Screenplay by Drew Goddard: World War Z • The Cabin in the Woods • Cloverfield
Matt Damon: Contagion • Elysium • Hereafter • Invictus • Behind the Candelabra
Jessica Chastain: Zero Dark Thirty • The Help | Chiwetel Ejiofor: Dirty Pretty Things • Amistad • Salt
Kate Mara: Shooter • Fantastic Four | Michael Pena: Ant-Man • 30 Minutes or Less • American Hustle

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Reviewed October 2, 2015.

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