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First Reviews: Matt Damon in ‘The Martian’

First Reviews: Matt Damon in 'The Martian'

Some years an unknown, or at least underanticipated, move busts out of the gate at Toronto and becomes the talk of the town before the first weekend’s over. That hasn’t happened so far this year, but the festival does seem to have one across-the-board hit: “The Martian.” Based on Andy Weir’s novel about an American astronaut’s attempts to survive on the barren surface of Mars, Ridley Scott’s movie is a solid, up-the-middle crowdpleaser — and, if the buzz around Toronto is any indication, a major hit in the making.

Although the novel’s lengthy explanations of the processes Damon’s Mark Watney uses to extend his lifespan on the Red Planet are mercifully curtailed by Drew Goddard’s script — we get a brief explanation of hydrolysis, but there’s a lot less math — “The Martian” champions scientific ingenuity and, once Mark has managed to restore contact with Earth, international cooperation. The movie holds onto the novel’s ensemble feel, as engineers and astrophysicists of different races, nationalities, and, less variably, genders, band together to bring him home. Scott casts the movie with a slew of familiar faces — Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristin Wiig and Donald Glover, and that’s just the short list — which helps us keep tabs on who’s who.

But “The Martian” runs on Damon’s movie-star charisma the way rocket boosters run on hydrazine, except that Damon’s fuel never runs out. In Weir’s novel, much of which takes the form of diary entries from Mark’s time on Mars, the smirky version of gallows humor can be smothering: You can only read phrases like “Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” so often without starting to wish that Mark would maybe just die already. The movie, mercifully, tones it down, and Damon injects a hint of desperation into Mark’s bravado, although you never feel he’s truly in mortal danger. The downside of movie-star presence is you know the movie’s not about to squander its most valuable asset.

What holds “The Martian” back from being more than a solid entertainment is a lack of majesty, the kind of wonder instilled by “Interstellar” and “Gravity,” points of reference that crop up in nearly every review thus far. In an era when the dream of human space exploration has been largely put on a shelf, there’s something modestly inspiring about “The Martian’s” nuts-and-bolts approach to interplanetary travel. Although the movie is nominally set in the future, there’s no significant technology that doesn’t already exist; its spacecraft may not exist yet, but we could start building them tomorrow. But if “The Martian” makes you believe we can go to Mars, but it lacks a sense of why we should, other than it might present the opportunity for some really nifty problem-solving. The shots of Mark’s rover crossing the virgin plains of Mars (shot in the Jordanian desert) are rendered prosaic by the you-are-there 3D, and Scott’s so busy pushing on to the next logistical challenge he never takes time to linger on the beauty of it all. A movie that preaches the rewards of risk-taking ought to take at least a few risks of its own.

Reviews of “The Martian”

Peter Debruge, Variety

With ideas like cryogenic sleep and warp speed, the movies have a tendency to make space travel look easy. Not Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” an enthralling and rigorously realistic outer-space survival story in which Matt Damon plays a NASA botanist stranded on the Red Planet after a sandstorm forces his crewmates to abort mission. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Damon’s “right stuff” hero has to get by on his own wits and “science the sh–” out of his predicament. It won’t be easy, but it is possible — and that’s the exhilarating thrill of both Andy Weir’s speculative-fiction novel and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s “science fact” adaptation. At its most basic, “The Martian” serves as an epic homage to the nerd — a deferential widescreen celebration of human intelligence in a genre that so often hinges on speed, braun or sheer midi-chlorian levels (thanks for nothing, George Lucas).

Tim Robey, Telegraph

If it’s the goal of great science fiction to boldly go where no man has gone before, an entry-level problem for “The Martian” is that it seems to be planting its space boots in some very recently trodden turf. On a good day, Ron Howard might have made the movie – it often resembles a rewrite of “Apollo 13” by the quippiest science geek in class. And you’d hardly call it Scott stretching himself, or the boundaries of where an effects blockbuster can take us. It’s less a space odyssey than this genre’s equivalent of a high-climbing log flume.

Matt Patches, Esquire

“The Martian” transcends Weir’s original work through visual language. The author’s prose never conjured the pristine colors and crispness of what Scott and his effects team are able to manifest onscreen. Nor did he ever ground Watney in the reality of human conversation. His leading man could “science the shit” out of any situation, but if it came down to wit, he’d be starving to death on the slopes of the Schiaparelli crater. Luckily, Damon can chew up and spit out Weir’s exclamation-point abuse. He can light himself on fire while converting hydrazine into H20, say “I blew myself up” while he’s still smoking from the burns, and we don’t want to keel over and groan. That’s movie magic.

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

Ridley Scott goes back to the future, a familiar destination for him, and returns in fine shape in “The Martian.” Although technically science fiction by virtue of its being largely set on a neighboring planet, this smartly made adaptation of Andy Weir’s best-selling novel is more realistic in its attention to detail than many films set in the present, giving the story the feel of an adventure that could happen the day after tomorrow. 

Henry Barnes, Guardian

With “Alien,” Scott went to space and found horror. With “Prometheus” he came back having caught something horrible (although, interestingly, the space suits in that wonky misadventure and this new film are very similar). “The Martian” floats between them. It is not fantastic, in either sense, but it does show-off a sense of play. For a survival flick it’s actually pretty light on peril (you never really believe that the Jordanian desert, where the film was shot, is Mars), but it’s not short of thrills.

Mike Ryan, Uproxx

“The Martian” is definitely not filled with long, brooding shots of Watney’s self-reflective silence. Instead, he’s talking. A lot. And making a lot of jokes and making a lot of popular culture references. (Again, Drew Goddard wrote this script.) This kind of should be a bleak movie, but it’s anything but bleak. There are scenes on Mars – especially when a storm hits – that reminded me of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” but here Scott drops all the unnecessary plot and dire mood that bogged that movie down, and it’s replaced with hope and humor. It’s a wonder what those type of things can do to a movie. And all of this adds up to, again, a surprisingly lighthearted journey. At least, about as lighthearted as a movie can be about being stranded on a desolate death planet.

Owen Gleiberman, BBC

“The Martian” is like “Gravity “without the floating, “Apollo 13” without the documentary intrigue and “127 Hours” without the mental breakdown. Despite being shot with dazzling skill, it’s all a little old hat. Terrific actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristen Wiig are on hand as NASA officials, and you can feel how hard they’re working to inject a bit of personality into their stock roles. Even the running theme of disco — the fact that Mark hates it, though it’s the only music he has to play, as well as the corny way that Scott employs tracks like “Hot Stuff” and “Waterloo” — feels passé. “The Martian” is beautifully designed and packaged entertainment, with dashes of visual awe, but it’s also the definition of a movie that’s not nearly as exciting as you wished it was.

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush

Blessed with reams of sassy Goddard dialogue, Damon’s performance is all charm. The only man onscreen for long stretches of “The Martian,” Damon holds the viewer’s attention as effortlessly as Mark harvests space potatoes. He’s incredibly endearing and every bit a movie star, but his character seems so unfazed by predicament that “The Martian” never turns into a real nail-biter. It’s fun to watch as he figures out how to plant crops in Mars’ barren soil, and extend the battery life of a rover dozens of times beyond its maximum range. But he’s so smart and capable, none of his quests become particularly suspenseful. Even against the longest odds any man has ever faced for survival, there’s never one single second where it seems like Mark might actually die on Mars.

David Jenkins, Little White Lies

The raison d’etre of a survival film is to at least force the spectator to think that the hero isn’t going to make it, but this is very much a softly-softly adventure yarn with the hard edges sanded off. Tension is kept to a minimum in favour of raising the quotient of up-with-people problem solving montages. Scott has amassed a gigantic, Altman-sized cast for this movie, but he squanders most of them with a line or two, often followed by a mildly comic reaction shot. Even the crew who left Watney behind, headed up by Jessica Chastain’s dispassionate Melissa Lewis, appear to feel no remorse or guilt. And on top of that, it’s hard to understand what’s powering their instincts – they want to save Mark, but is it because they love him and want him to live, or is it because they’re in NASA and this is how they do things in NASA?

Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist

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.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

In this swirling cast of intense figures attempting a bold gamble, “The Martian” sometimes struggles from too many moving pieces. The massive ensemble makes room for enjoyable bit parts by a deadpan Donald Glover as an ultra-geeky computer genius, Mackenzie Davis as a satellite analyst and the ever-impressive Sean Bean as a wayward consultant, but Scott never manages to shake the sense of stock characters tossing around technical language with no semblance of interior lives. Intrusive title cards identifying each new face only further the impression of an overly busy picture.

Drew McWeeny, HitFix

I prefer this film, both in story and in tone, to last year’s “Interstellar,” and it’s because there’s no point where they suddenly just dump the science to start talking about the “power of love” or other such silliness. Instead, they keep everyone engaged in trying to find a real solution to the problem. And even as he keeps everything grounded, Scott isn’t afraid to find some visual poetry when the opportunity presents itself. There’s a gorgeous quiet moment in the film where Watney’s driving his Rover through a large plain while Martian dust devils are blown up all around him, and that’s one of those touches that I doubt anyone else would have included, or that they could have pulled off with the same delicate touch. Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is a smart person’s blockbuster, with just enough emotion to make it all feel like it matters, but not so much that it undermines the genuine intelligence and resourcefulness of these characters. 

Jordan Hoffman, Mashable

Mark Watney’s not the only one who’s terrific at his job: so is Matt Damon. If you’re going to be stuck alone with one actor, who guides you through a story with nothing but video diaries, you need someone who can exude the right amount of humor and confidence. Push the “I am a space conquerer” angle too much and the role becomes obnoxious. Constantly rattle him with fear, and the movie loses its entertainment value. Damon and Scott walk this fine line beautifully.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair

“The Martian” could easily have been a misfire: dull, schematic, too implausible. But with every carefully constructed detail, flourish, and nuance, Scott’s picture clicks and grooves like a beautiful machine. A beguiling mix of suspenseful, goofy, and rousing, “The Martian” is sublime, sophisticated entertainment. I left feeling weightless.

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