In a great deal of science fiction, there is a profound sense of wonder inherent in the setting. There’s certainly a lot of poetry that can be gleaned from just observing the cosmos, and especially in the idea of actually traveling through it. Even just the word cosmos has a kind of cultural connotation of something grand and romantic. That’s not the case with Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which for both good and ill is exceedingly, intentionally mundane.
The plot revolves around astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is left for dead when he’s separated from the rest of his mission’s crew during an intense dust storm on the surface of Mars. After the crew departs, Watney realizes he must make a life of sorts for himself on the planet until a rescue mission arrives, which will take several years. While he goes about finding ways to sustain himself and make contact with mission control, back on Earth, NASA first worries about how to spin the story of Mark’s death and then how to go about rescuing him in a budget- and publicity-friendly way once they realize he’s still alive.
If that doesn’t sound very poetic, that’s likely on purpose. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, is not an examination of man’s place in the universe or a metaphor for our own lives filtered through the lens of outer space. It’s an intentionally prosaic examination of one man’s determination to stay alive in the harshest of environments, which just happens to be Mars. It’s science fiction that leans very heavily on the science, with fiction being almost an afterthought.
Although to the film’s credit, the science is amazingly plausible and seems imminently believable even while it’s being covered in technobabble. A good chunk of the first half of the film involves Watney, who happens to be a botanist, figure out how to grow food in a place where nothing grows. It’s a surprisingly exciting sequence of events, and it’s staged so well that it makes growing potatoes on Mars seem like something anyone with access to millions of dollars in state-of-the-art space gear could do.
It’s just a shame that that air of easy verisimilitude doesn’t extend to the unnecessary large cast of characters. This is a story about Mark Watney, and he’s the only truly, fully-realized character in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially since Damon infuses Watney with so much down-to-earth charm and honest emotion. He's magnetic enough that the entire film seems like he could easily work as a one-man show.
However, every time the film shifts its view to see what’s going on with NASA or Watney’s fellow astronauts, the film sinks and struggles to stay interesting. Because there are far too many characters that are given screen time, it becomes very difficult to give any of them adequate time to develop or even simply breathe. It leads to a lot of talented actors giving a lot of one-note performances, such as Jeff Daniels’ emotionless, by-the-numbers NASA chief or Donald Glover’s hyperactive, beautiful-mind astrophysics nerd. It's simply hard to care about their struggles because none of them seem to exist outside their relationship to Watney.
At least Drew Goddard’s screenplay adds a bit of energy and humor to everything. Without it, the film would possibly be dragged down by its sheer mundanity. Goddard’s script is remarkably efficient, and the man knows how to deploy curse words with laser-like precision. The film is genuinely funny at times without making Watney’s predicament seem like comedy. Watney is the kind of man who laughs to keep from crying, and his optimism seems real and natural. This is a film set on Mars where a set of disco songs is used as diegetic music, and that seems perfectly reasonable in context.
Without that humor tempering the narrative, The Martian wouldn’t be nearly as fun to sit through. While the opening shot of the sun shining behind Mars is reminiscent of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that The Martian echoes more than once. However, Scott has taken the epic, metaphorical nature of that film and flipped it on its head, giving us a very grounded and practical kind of sci-fi cinema. There is nothing fantastical about this story of a man trapped on Mars, but that’s what makes it kind of interesting. In its effort to show Watney’s predicament as realistically as possible, it’s actually a bit inspiring, letting us believe that dreams of exploring other planets might become as relatively normal as an expedition to a remote mountain range on Earth. It’s a brave, new world that looks a lot like our current world, just with a whole lot more red sand.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B