Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis
Running Time: 141 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
When The Martian hunkers down and seriously focuses in on the nuts and bolts of its story, it's great, gripping entertainment that's almost worth every bit of praise thrown its way. When it doesn't and gets sidetracked with silly jokes and comedy, the filmmakers strive for less than what they should, perhaps out of concern audiences will be turned off by a heavy dose of science and space physics. This is one of those films where a hearty recommendation will seem like a pan because of the talented involved and expectations going in. But make no mistake about the fact that this is a strong film, and for director Ridley Scott, easily his best in years. While its problems may prevent me from fully joining in with those hailing it a "return to form," at least most of the framework is present for it to deserve that designation. There's something besides an astronaut that gets lost along the way, preventing this from ascending to the heights it should with this strong a set-up and central performance powering it.
Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel, the film centers around astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who's part of the Ares III manned mission to Mars, led by commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), and including pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), systems operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and navigator and chemist Dr. Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). It's on Sol 18 of their 31 Sol expedition when a dust storm hits, forcing them to evacuate and leaving a believed to be dead Watney on Mars.
Rationing what food he has and taking up shelter in the crew's surface base, Watney uses his botanical knowledge to grow potatoes and hopefully survive until the Ares IV crew arrives in four years. But back on Earth, satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers photos revealing Watney has survived and it's up to Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to establish contact and formulate a rescue plan with the help of JPL director and engineer Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). This is all in the face of potential PR nightmare for NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), who not only has to inform the public of this situation, but the Aries III crew on their way home. What develops is a tight race against time with Watney's life on line, as well as whomever is assigned the dangerous task of retrieving him.
The Martian's opening hour is its strongest because it might be the only point where we legitimately have no idea what could happen, as the audience is left observing Watney in this perilous predicament as he comes up with solutions to extend his survival. He keeps a video log, which is also an ingenious idea because it gives us kind of a running commentary on the action and adds a lot some humor in a stretch of story when its most needed, both for the protagonist and viewers. Later on the comedy becomes a problem but here it isn't because Damon is a complete natural at sliding it in and finding just the right tone to play this guy, who we hardly know anything about because we don't need to. His performance takes care of everything, including frequent hard science-filled soliloquies to the video camera, which never failed to completely hold my attention.
The surface of the planet and cinematography also look great, likely in part because they were filmed in Jordan rather than a Hollywood sound stage. The space scenes have a similarly realistic feel and it's a relief that we do notice the toll all of this takes on Watney, both through Damon's weight loss and the fact that he suffers what seems like appropriate injuries from the physical ordeal he's put through. Ridley Scott definitely did his homework. And what might be the most impressive aspect of Drew Goddard's script is how little we know about Watney the person, forsaking the type of heart-tugging backstory that undermined Gravity's efforts. They just let Damon do his job, and does he ever, letting us know everything necessary about him through his carefully thought out actions to insure survival.
It's when the action shifts to NASA that issues start to arise and what started as an intriguing character study shifts into something less captivating, with an outcome that isn't even the slightest bit in doubt. Not just the "what" but exactly the "how" is telegraphed pretty early, leaving the remainder of its two-and-a-half hour run time to be filled with bureaucratic arguing and comedy. A number of rescue scenarios are brought up only to be shot down until another one is explored, before again being shot down. It's almost as if Goddard's screenplay over-explains and justifies every little decision just to cover itself. They talk about how this will work because of that or that will work because of this, only to have Jeff Daniels' NASA director say it just can't be done because of x, y or z. For a far more rewarding Daniels performance this year in a faintly similar role, watch his award-worthy turn in Steve Jobs, delivering material that deftly avoids the cliches he's forced to trudge through here as a disapproving boss rejecting everything simply because the script requires it.
And at the risk of exaggerating, it felt as if there were about fifty scenes exactly like that aforementioned one, broken up only by jokes, clever one-liners or, at worst, moments of broad comedy that seem to have come from another film entirely. Take, for instance, Donald Glover's astrodynamicist who takes a pratfall on the floor in the middle of a dramatic scene for no good reason at all. It takes us right out of the story, creating an unnecessary headwind that prevents anyone from fully investing in what's supposed to be this life or death situation. Some levity is fine, and in the case of some of Damon's scenes even welcome, but I'm not sure how many times I need to be reminded either through dialogue or the soundtrack that Jessica Chastain's character listens to bad 70's music. Ironically enough, among NASA's stuffed suits and lab coats, Kristen Wiig gives the most serious performance in small role as their media relations director.
The ending, as inevitable as it may be, is handled well, largely because when the script is focused on the retrieval of this character and the moral questions facing the crew that left him, it's firing on all cylinders. If anything, more time should have been spent on the latter, but the scenes we do get of it are no-nonsense and contemplative, held together by Chastain, who couldn't make a mockery of this material even if she tried. There's a point when the Ares III team have to make an important (if predictable) decision and weigh the pros and cons in a scene that contains the thoughtfulness and drama I wish were invested in some of the more jokey NASA scenes on Earth.
It's preferable to focus on the many things this does well since that's easier to explain, but there's still that nagging feeling. You know the one. It's when either the filmmakers or studio just can't seem to get out of the movie's way and trust what they have. Had they done that, this really would deserve to be mentioned in the conversations it currently is. Still, it's an enjoyable survival in space adventure that's more deserving of comparisons to Gravity than Interstellar. But while the latter earned its exorbitant running length with the sheer scope of its story and ambitions, The Martian isn't interested in those bigger questions that would put it in its company. That this got the full endorsement of NASA is interesting on a number of levels, not the least of which involves the fictionalized depiction of their employees. It works, just on a level that's more entertaining than suspenseful or thought provoking.
It's not a backhanded a compliment to label the The Martian as enjoyable mainstream entertainment Scott pastes together with impressive technical prowess, meticulous attention to scientific detail, and most of all, Damon's committed performance. But to uncover what's holding it back, you needn't look further than its bewildering Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical/Comedy. While that controversial categorization is clearly a stretch, there are far too many instances when you're wondering whether its inclusion is really as big a leap as it seems.