Having read (and liked) Andy Weir’s The Martian shortly after Matt Damon’s casting was announced, I walked into the film adaptation with a heavier load of expectations than I normally do. Given what I knew about the book and the film, I had a fairly concrete idea of what the film would be like. As it turns out, the movie was A LOT like I imagined it would be. My expectations were met. In many ways, that’s a good thing. The downside is that my expectations weren’t really exceeded. I wasn’t really surprised by much of anything, aside from the fact that what I thought would be a tense survival flick turned out to be the feel-good movie of the season.
The setup is easy: when astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is accidentally left for dead on Mars, he and a crack team at NASA (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Donald Glover, and more) must work together to craft a plan for his survival and eventual rescue. Damon is a great Mark Watney, perfectly capturing the character’s goofball nature. There’s nary a moment of melodrama for Mark Watney. His sense of humor is one of the most important tools for his survival. The rest of the cast is filled with good actors doing good work: Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan… it’s a veritable who’s who of young, attractive Hollywood talent. And, like Watney, a lot of ‘em are likably goofy.
This goofiness was one of the few surprises I found in the movie. It’s present in the book, but on the page it’s balanced by a lot more technobabble, suspense, and loneliness. The film, consequently, feels much lighter in tone. It’s rarely bleak and Watney’s isolation isn’t deeply felt. This isn’t some meditation on loneliness or rebirth. It’s not a gut-churning disaster movie like Gravity. And unlike the relatively portentous Interstellar, The Martian takes place in a solar system full of optimism. There’s a definite pro-science, pro-space program slant to the film, but nothing in the film indicates a desire to wax poetic about anything. The flick’s about as deep as a bird bath. But hey, it’s a breathless popcorn flick. It may be a smart one, but it’s first and foremost a crowd pleaser. And that’s tough to do when you’re making a big sci-fi flick that’s light on action.
And though the film lacks action, that’s certainly not a problem. The film is full of cool stuff to look at. The film’s sets and costumes are gorgeous. They share quite a bit of DNA with the design of Prometheus in that there’s a touch of whimsy in them. They look incredibly cool, but feel just functional enough. Mark Watney’s boots have the NASA logo on them, so every bootprint is branded. The spinning wheel design of the Ares III brings 2001 to mind, where astronauts walk around on curved floors. The film does this without ever feeling like design porn. It doesn’t treat these beautiful costumes or sets with any kind of reverence — it beats the shit out of them. I love that.
Really, there’s a lot to love here. But there’s still something gnawing at me about the film. Perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more if I didn’t know what was gonna happen at every turn. I almost feel like kicking myself for reading the book first, but fuck that — the book is good and I’m glad I read it. But maybe, just maybe, that’s why I can’t shake this feeling that the film is by-the-numbers in a way. The material wasn’t really elevated or transformed by Ridley Scott’s direction or Drew Goddard’s writing. Perhaps it didn’t need to be elevated or transformed. It’s relentlessly positive, and perhaps that took some of the drama out of it for me. The ultimate outcome, though, is that critics and audiences really seem to be digging this fun, light, smart movie. It’s one big high note.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars