Launching onto the big screen, The Martian is Ridley Scott’s most recent foray into the sci-fi scene. Assisted by NASA experts, there’s a touch of sincerity about this presentation. Not simply your run-of-the-mill space age flick, this is a movie with a mission statement. A cautionary tale, if you will – one whose action-packed sequences are tightly wed to the risks and rewards associated with an era of exploration, of SpaceX and Elon Musk.
And, if that weren’t enough, a star-studded cast boasting Matt Damon as lead, with Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor in supporting roles, The Martian has all the makings of a cult classic.
Glitzy gizmos, sensational cinematography – a sci-fi fanatic’s delight; what’s not to love? Well, quite a lot actually. And here’s the problem: subgenre. Space odysseys tend to gravitate toward one of two categories – the cinematic and the melodramatic. Take Gravity – it’s all about the cinematic thrill, the immersive experience of dazzling special effects and their mastery, not so much the script itself. Dialogue is sparse and character development is limited, whereas Interstellar revels in melodrama – a dense, fantastical script and soppy sentimentalism. This detaches us from reality, transports us to another realm.
The Martian is in between. It suffers from being too funny to be serious, but too serious to be funny. Rather than boldly going where no director has ever gone before, the movie industry seems content to tread in circles. We have yet to see a space movie whose audiovisual effects are matched by realistic, riveting storytelling.
Opening with another day at the office on planet Mars, Wadi Rum in Jordan provides the perfect backdrop for the Red Giant. Engrossed in some “Hey, look! We’re astronauts doing our thing” banter, Ares III is suddenly swept up in a spectacular dust storm. This leads to an emergency evacuation of the crew, leaving Mark Watney (Matt Damon) mistakenly assumed dead and stranded on Mars. After a convoluted explanation of his miraculous survival – courtesy of a video log cliché – Watney gets down to business. He has 300 days of provisions and needs to figure out a way of stretching what little he has out to 1480 days, all the while trying to make contact with Earth. No pressure. Eventually spotted by NASA, it’s left to Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the director, to begin piecing together a rescue plan, albeit covertly at first. After an impressive and rather liberal use of the word ‘shit’ by (American) rocket scientists, contact is made with the aid of the 1997 Pathfinder probe. The Hermes; that is, the escape vessel en route back home, makes a U-turn but will they get there in time?
Comic relief is ever present in The Martian. A running gag in the film is Mission Commander Melissa Lewis’ (Jessica Chastain) taste in music, 1970s disco – which is the only available playlist on the planet. Whether Watney is driving across the surface of Mars seated next to a decaying isotope listening to ‘Hot Stuff ’ by Donna Summer, or dismantling his launch vehicle to ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA , there’s a song for every occasion.
Reviewing this movie has not quite been analogous with watching Matt Damon farm potatoes in his own excrement for two hours and twenty minutes, but sadly it’s not far off . Watney never truly grows as a character; instead he takes everything in his stride. Likewise with the cast, despite being surrounded by “a galaxy of stars” [The Guardian], there are no breathtaking performances here. And while there were some memorable scenes, such as Damon being propelled into space ‘in a convertible,’ I fear that this movie has just been one small step for the genre, and one giant payout for 20th Century Fox.