The Martian is one of the most entertaining films of the year and unquestionably the best thing that veteran director Ridley Scott has made in quite some time. In fact, one of the most interesting things about it is how different it is to Scott's usual work. Though his dedication to putting together well-constructed visuals is clearly as strong as ever-Mars never looked so good-the optimistic, can-do attitude the film has towards scientific endeavour and the triumph of the human spirit feel like something you might expect from Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Entertainment associates rather than the man who gave us the dark futures of Alien and Blade Runner. In adapting the book by Andy Weir, screenwriter Drew Goddard presents what could be an overly technical science lecture into a breezy, inclusive experience. The tone works very effectively and watching the large cast of characters come together to solve the problem of how to get Matt Damon off Mars is exactly the kind of thing to get audiences pumping their fists in the cinema. It was refreshingly different to comparable films, in particular making an irreverent chaser to the Very Serious Business of Interstellar. But for anyone out there who's ever accused critics of just being contrarians who can never be happy, feel free to claim this piece as evidence, because despite enjoying The Martian a lot, I found the optimistic tone ended up going too far and what worked so well about the film also worked against it. The film ends up being so optimistic that it lacks any real tension.
Needless to say, Damon's Mark Watney makes his way off Mars and back home, a triumph of the combined efforts of himself, the crewmates forced to leave him behind, NASA, China, Childish Gambino and more. Back on Earth, Watney tells a room of potential astronauts that he was scared he was going to die up there, but I didn't really share those concerns. The way the film presents and solves problems both with Watney on Mars and with the rescue efforts on Earth keeps things engaging and keeps the plot moving at a steady pace, but no one problem ever feels like it has enough time to breath. That Watney has to grow his own food on a planet without water (as far as the writers knew at the time) was a big selling point featuring in all the trailers, but Watney comes up with a plan almost right away, while he already has years of astronaut food ready in reserve. That doesn't make the difficulty invalid but it's not exactly a pressing problem.
|"Mmm, Mars Potatoes. If I can keep these down, I'll be sitting pretty"|
The feeling of isolation should be one of the main themes of The Martian, but often our spaceman comes across less 'stranded' and more 'sitting tight'. He manages to get in touch with people back on Earth (they already know he's alive even before that) and later with his crew, pretty handily. Details of his home life are kept deliberately sparse, which keeps us in the moment of him being trapped but also makes it feel like Mark's not missing much. It still wouldn't be a barrel of laughs to be stuck on an entire planet alone, but it's not total isolation, he's not exactly chatting with a volleyball. Maybe thinking this is do-able just reveals my lack of a personal life...
The lack of tension extends to the rescue effort as well. The extensive cast is unanimous in the desire to bring Mark Watney home. Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA is the closest the film gets to a dissenting voice on the ground, but even he is continually looking for solutions and pushes others to get the job done, the only real bristling coming between him and Sean Bean over methods, not stances. Sean Bean's career is ended by the events of this film, something the film tosses away and which doesn't seem to bother him in any way. At one point, Watney's crewmates returning to Earth must decide whether or not to turn their ship around and go get him, significantly expanding their mission time (and time apart from the families Watney lacks), defying a direct and putting their own lives at risk. The vote is unanimous. Everyone that could be angry that they defied orders is really thrilled. Did we need to see the vote at all if nobody had any reservations? Everyone knows that it's going to be a tough job, but it's wall-to-wall resigned sighing, rolling up the sleeves and getting to work. At no point does anybody, even somebody the movie could present as an utter heartless bastard completely in the wrong, question whether all this effort-and presumably, billions of dollars-is worth it to bring one man home. The lack of an elephant in the room is an elephant in the room.
This is not to say that the film is bad-it's beautiful, it's packed with talented actors and it's a fun ride throughout; it just never even for a moment made me believe that Matt Damon wasn't gonna make it off that planet. In a desperate reach for high stakes, I did briefly convince myself that crew member Sebastian Stan might hit a spot of bother, but that was mostly just because of some sad eyes on Stan's part and well, he kind of always looks like that. [obviousjoke]Even Sean Bean makes it out alive![/obviousjoke]Scott and Goddard (and possibly Weir, but I haven't read the book) keep the gloves on throughout and while you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be grinning when Starman starts blaring, the scant scenes where Damon breaks down fall flat. As ever, mileages may vary, but it cut into the pay off, and movies like this are all about that pay off. Please don't pardon the pun, track me down and shoot me for the pun, but the gravity was very light for The Martian, and that makes it refreshing enough to be very good, but possibly too slight to be a classic.