I don’t know if it’s just a mood I’m in or a reflection of the kind of studio films that get released this time of year, but The Martian is the third in-the-theater experience I’ve had in a row where I enjoyed what I was watching without ever being super impressed. Black Mass was a serviceable 70s gangster pastiche made entertaining by a long list of great performances from incredible actors putting in above average work. Sicario was a decent war (on drugs) film that survived mostly on the strength of its intense action sequences & striking cinematography. Going for the hat trick, The Martian was pretty good, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of structure or narrative in the context of hard sci-fi cinema. In this case, what saves the movie from genre-related tedium is a depiction of believable people (read: nerds) engaging in practical problem solving in an impractical scenario: rescuing an astronaut/botanist who’s been stranded on Mars with limited resources for survival. The movie loses a good bit of steam when it gets mired in NASA politics & the logistics of making physical contact with the MIA astro-botanist, but for the most part the recognizable humanity in its extraordinary extraterrestrial situation makes for an interesting watch.
Matt Damon is asked to hold down a lot of the film’s weight as the titular astro-botanist Mark Watney, who might as well be considered a ghost as well as a Martian, as he has been assumed dead by his colleagues (with good reason). I almost hate to say it, but it’s the found footage aspects of his early post-abandonment screentime that holds most of the film’s charms. Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian‘s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare. Besides his poop-related resourcefulness, Watney has an entertaining sense of humor that distinguishes him from typical space rescue heroes, exemplified in lines like “Mars will come to fear my botany skills,” “Fuck you, Mars,” “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”, and constant tirades against his captain’s love of disco that remind me of the iconic “No more fucking ABBA!” line in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
The problem with The Martian, if there is one, is that every other actor in the film is completely wasted. Heavyweights Jessica Chastain & Michael Peña are given essentially nothing to do. Kristen Wiig is mostly present to look skeptical. Jeff Daniels is a run-of-the-mill business dick. And so on. Only Donald Glover’s performance stand out among the supporting cast, but not in a good way. Glover’s king nerd is distractingly awful in his attempts to outnerd his nerdy colleagues, providing the film’s sole representation of uncrecognizable human behavior. Glover is an island of falsehood in a film that generally feels believable. If I could ask director Ridley Scott one question about The Martian it would be what the hell was he thinking allowing Glover to embarrass himself/everyone else with that performance. It’s spectacularly awful.
Speaking of Ridley Scott, The Martian often feels as if it were a direct response to the backlash against more fanciful sci-fi like Scott’s own Prometheus & Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. If that’s the case, my lack of unbridled enthusiasm for the film may be a simple matter of taste. I loved Prometheus. Loved it. Also, Interstellar was my favorite movie last year. The practical problem solving & believably nerdy behavior of The Martian is likely to win over those two films’ naysayers, though, and believe me, they are in no short supply. A lot of people are really going to like this movie, but it lost me a little in the second half once the logical, step-by-step rescue process had larger political implications that extended beyond Watney’s immediate needs, such as growing crops & performing self-surgery. I know it makes me a cinematic philistine, but if The Martian had stuck to its found footage format or introduced some kind of The Angry Red Planet-esque space monsters to its believably human/nerdy aesthetic, I’d probably be singing its praises right now. Instead, I simply think it’s pretty good. Not Prometheus good, but pretty good.