Running over two hours long, featuring a massive ensemble cast of A-list stars and rising up-and-comers, and presented in crisp, often beautifully shot 3D, the grand thesis of the “The Martian,” for all its shiny trappings, remains simple, direct, and undeviating, and best summarized by Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad”: “Yeah, science!” Or, to quote astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who must do some serious mental gymnastics to save his life when stranded on Mars: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” Essentially, “The Martian” might be the most expensive movie ever made about the great, nerdy, power of science.
John McClane meets MacGyver with a PhD in the character of Mark Watney, who is presumed dead when he’s hit by debris and knocked unconscious, after a sudden storm overtakes the crew of the Ares III on Mars, forcing them to quickly abandon the planet and their mission. When he comes to a day later, Mark hardly wastes a moment in tallying up his supplies, calculating how long it will take a rescue mission to get to him, and soon starts devising how he’ll supply himself with food and water to survive the four years until the Ares IV arrives. Yeah, science!
Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA — who is used to sending people into space — now mobilizes to figure out how to bring someone back. The team includes the head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels, essentially playing Will McAvoy from “The Newsroom”); head of PR Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig); the suit in charge of Mars missions Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor); the lovably frumpy head in charge of the astronauts crews Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean); the head of the Jet Propulsion Lab (Benedict Wong); astrodynamics number cruncher Rich Purnell (Donald Glover); and yes, between them all is a lot of science talk. Meanwhile, heading back home is the crew of the Ares III — Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) — and you can bet those names won’t simply be floating toward Earth for too long.
Yet, for all those names and faces, much of the movie relies on Matt Damon to carry it by himself, alone on Mars. The script cleverly has Mark creating video logs of his activity, “for the record,” which helps mitigate what is lot of exposition and explanation of the various solutions he comes up with for the variety of problems he faces. Balanced by a good dose of humor, and Damon’s effortless charm, the film makes a lot of technically heavy scientific chatter engaging. The story is completely free of subplots or extraneous threads — focusing on Mark on Mars figuring out the next problem to solve, and everyone at NASA doing the same — with the script by Drew Goddard (“World War Z,” “Cloverfield,” “Daredevil”) almost always pushing ahead with forward momentum, but this isn’t always a good thing.
For all the obstacles Mark and those working with him from millions of miles away have to overcome, there is a curious lack of stakes. Once it’s established that Mark is smart enough to figure his way out of pretty much every situation, we’re not watching a man struggle against the odds, so much as defy them. It’s a fine distinction, but a crucial one, because it hinders the ability of “The Martian” to connect on any kind of emotional level. While inevitable and wholly unfair comparisons will be made to “Interstellar” (other than being set in space, the two movies couldn’t be more different in countless ways), Christopher Nolan’s picture, for all its flaws, did have a genuinely earned core of moving sensitivity. “The Martian” is perhaps a closer cousin to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” but there too, the filmmaker found a deeper layer of feeling beyond the survival story. Those kinds are qualities aren’t generally associated with the films of Ridley Scott, certainly not lately, and it’s an element glaringly missing here that prevents the picture from being more than just a technically accomplished adventure movie.
All that said, “The Martian” is the most purely enjoyable picture Scott has made in years. The streamlined narrative and the film’s consistent pacing, aided by a cast who don’t make a wrongfooted move, makes for easy popcorn entertainment. Cinematographer Darius Wolski, who lensed Scott’s “Prometheus,” makes the most of being able to open the color palette here, creating a rich visual scope for burnt red of Mars, and deep reaches of space. And it probably doesn’t even need to be said that the special effects work is top notch, though if there is one slight below-the-line disappointment, it’s the rather generic score by Harry Gregson-Williams.
There are issues with “The Martian” that might grate on some more than others, including some rather clunky lines of dialogue, an overused running gag about disco music, and the picture’s inability to know when to finally end (there is one misguided and redundant final scene in particular, with Mark Watney explaining the film’s threadbare themes, that could easily to be cut). However, none of the quibbles are as egregious as the plot developments in “Prometheus,” which was additionally bogged down by glancing against the larger “Alien” mythology and the expectations that came with that. By contrast, “The Martian” promises a decent ride, and for the most part, it accomplishes that goal. It may not be the next great sci-fi movie, but it’s a pretty good one to go into orbit with. [B]