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Film Review: The Martian

The Martian (2015; Directed by Ridley Scott)

The Martian is a fantasy Apollo 13 scenario of dire space peril addressed by practical scientific ingenuity that makes Ron Howard’s 1995 film appear quaint and old-fashioned in comparison. Now, little to no labour is required on anyone’s part to make Ron Howard movies look old-fashioned, and if that was the only accomplishment of Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, then it would be a slight work indeed. As it happens, The Martian is a bit more than slight but not by much. This is expertly-crafted mass entertainment, Scott’s most solidly populist and blissfully unproblematic film in years. But it’s not merely unproblematic but insubstantial, a movie invoking Hollywood’s recent revival of space program nostalgia but little else besides.

As the internet meme wags were glad to point out, The Martian is another epic about a questionably expensive effort to rescue Matt Damon. It may be worth asking what it is about Damon that makes him suited to such a role, again. Capable, intelligent, but still oddly boyish in his 40s, Damon is just likable and vulnerable enough to activate latent protective instincts but not so emotional open and bare to make his predicament of danger seem uncomfortable or overly difficult (nobody would lift a finger to save demonstrably better actors like Christian Bale or Daniel Day-Lewis in the same situation, for example). The predicament of danger for Damon’s character Mark Watney, an astronaut and botanist on a manned NASA Ares III mission on Mars, is that he has been stranded alone on the Red Planet when a massive dust storm forces his fellow crew members, commanded by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), to ditch the planetary surface and launch into orbit. As Ares III begins a multi-year journey home, NASA, believing Watney dead, commemorates him as a fallen hero as a form of PR damage control.

Watney, however, actually survived being struck by debris during the storm and begins to MacGyver his way towards long-term endurance on the inhospitable Martian surface. He farms potatoes inside the oxygenated habitat base left behind, extracting water from the hydrogen in rocket fuel (a trial and error process, with an explosion along the way); he modifies the rover vehicle to trek to his only likely rescue site, the landing spot for the next Mars mission; he unearths and activates the Pathfinder probe in an effort to communicate with Earth, which has, by this point, realized that he is still alive (though the Ares crew is not immediately told); and he makes an effort to stay sane, recording a wry video log, cussing freely, and playing pop music in the habitat, although his choice of the latter is frustratingly limited to Lewis’ collection of disco hits, giving the film its pop soundtrack (you know that “I Will Survive” will show up at some point, although at least Scott resists using “Staying Alive” as well). He survives not merely by ingeniously providing himself with the physical essentials of life, but by channeling sympathy (of his scientific comrades on the Ares and at home, of the population of Earth, of the movie’s audience) in his direction.

Beyond the dogged, alternately wisecracking and philosophic Damon, Scott applies his large ensemble cast in an artistic manner like figures in a history painting, achieving specific effects from each one. Jeff Daniels, as the Director of NASA, holds court with withering stares (who would have thought, two decades after Dumb and Dumber, that he would have proved a more reliable and respected screen performer than Jim Carrey?); Kristen Wiig’s media relations guru is a useful source of reactions that establish how terrible the entire situation is for media relations; Benedict Wong becomes almost imperceptibly weary with the increasing work volume thrown on his rescue supply build team at the Jet Propulson Laboratory; Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor are allowed to show more emotional loyalty towards their imperiled astronauts, who are all likable if more prone to witticisms than real NASA types probably are (what else are you going to do with Michael Peña, though?). Most enjoyable is an extended cameo by Community‘s Donald Glover as an astrodynamicist at JPL, a socially gauche math nerd who explains a fiendishly complex flightplan allowing the Ares III to return to Mars to rescue Watney with pens and a stapler.

Even if you are always kind of vaguely certain that Watney will make it back to Earth (what would the point be, otherwise?), The Martian‘s obsessive focus on the minutiae of Watney’s odyssey of survival builds up a simmering tension and a fundamental human engagement, all while flattering the audience for keeping up with all of the streamlined scientific detail on display. It pleases and engages, but rarely challenges. Like another recent CGI age exploration and celebration of American space travel (Interstellar), The Martian finds essential heroism and humane sincerity in questing beyond our planet’s comforting orbit.

Unlike Christopher Nolan, however, Ridley Scott does not engage with the existential dimensions of moving out into space and the dwarfing of our self-conceptions that comes with it. This seems oddly uncharacteristic for this specific filmmaker, who instead crafts The Martian into a less feverishly intense, more inherently light and comical angle on the themes of Gravity, wherein we are asked to identify with a fragile but capable human being escaping the terrifying, negating fatality of outer space. Like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Matt Damon is running away from space’s deadly potential for erasure towards the safe haven of Earth, instead of penetrating into its unsettling quantum mysteries as in a film like Interstellar (or like the model for all Hollywood space epics, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The Martian is undeniably an entertaining crowd-pleaser to its core, and as a result it doesn’t press that crowd with larger, more destabilizing questions about what it might mean to be alone in outer space, as one man on Mars or as one species in the universe.

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