by George Wolf
The Martian is about brains over brawn, about thoughtful solutions trumping impulse. It’s a veritable mash note to science, it looks great and it has a veteran cast that’s actually too star- studded.
It has all the earmarks of a blockbuster, but still can’t shake the feeling of missed opportunity.
Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, part of a NASA research team stationed at an outpost on Mars. In a quick setup very reminiscent of Gravity, he is struck by debris during a nasty storm and is lost in the darkness. The team believes Watney to surely be dead, and leaves for home without him.
Once Watney comes to and tends to his injuries, he’s got some issues to ponder, such as how to grow food on a desolate planet, let NASA know he’s alive, and learn to love all the 70s disco playlists that his mission commander (Jessica Chastain) left behind. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” followed by “I Will Survive”? Got it.
Legendary director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, World War Z) make an impressive duo on paper, but have trouble finding a consistent tone that fits.
Watney starts a video blog, a convenient device for detailed explanations on how he’s going to “science the shit” out of his predicament, with plenty of time for upbeat witticisms and disco talk. “Science the shit” is a nice line, but the script also has plenty of forced moments such as “that could work….as long as nothing goes wrong.”
Cut to something going wrong.
Damon is endlessly charming, and the single biggest element keeping the entire film from spiraling out of control. Chastain seems both distracted and a distraction, as you realize this isn’t the first time she’s left Damon stranded on a distant planet (Interstellar).
Jeff Daniels sleep walks through his scenes as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s presence is wasted and Kristin Wiig shows up in a role that is basically needless.
With a running time pushing two and a half hours, there’s ample chance to cut deeper than the superficial nature the film embraces. By the time Bowie’s “Starman” starts cranking, you get the feeling it wants to tap into that Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack vibe on the way to making some statement on humanity.
Though The Martian is certainly capable filmmaking, it whiffs on both counts.