The Martian

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Ridley Scott

Starring

Jessica Chastain Kristen Wiig Matt Damon

Anticipation.

Sir Ridley never really manages to do it for us.

Enjoyment.

Wide-eyed, can-do sci-fi whimsy. It’s certainly enjoyable, but is it good?

In Retrospect.

Hmm… not really. Pro science and human endeavour, but also very much a fantasy.

Matt Damon cracks wise on Mars in Ridley Scott’s rose-tinted paean to human endeavour.

In space, no-one can hear you LOL. But even so, you LOL anyway, right into the little GoPro you have ensconced in your astro yurt, even though your chances of you being ferociously sucked into a void of infinite nothingness and transformed into a cloud of comedy ash are high-to-likely. And then when things go wrong, your prospects are dim, you just LOL some more. Lift yourself right back up, gawp into that little lens like a braying loon-bag (or seedy YouTube vlogger), roll your eyes and crack wise like the best of ’em.

The Martian, based on the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, is the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a sharp-shooting NASA botanist who, in an airship-sized snafu that is the result of some kind of freak space hurricane, is left stranded on Mars with nothing but a tray of spuds, a Mars rover and set of pin-sharp survival instincts that would make Bear Grylls go all slack in the trouser region. Even though he’s many million miles away from the good ol’ US of A, the lab boys back home are figuring a way to get their man back safely. They talk. In rooms. About “making things happen.” Money is no object. “I’ve checked the math – it works!” they say.

Whatever it takes to succeed in their mission and save face against a savage media. Watney believes that when crisis strikes, you mustn’t lie back and accept your grim fate – you must seize the moment, solve that problem, crunch that number, grab adversity by the windpipe and garrote it to death with a extension cable. And that is what this film is about. If you’re someone of a less wide-eyed/affirmative disposition, well… you might have some queries with this one.

It’s strange to see a big-budget sci-fi movie aimed explicitly at a family audience, and the film plays like how-to survival tactics TV, only on a massively overblown scale. Though there is some very mild scatological humour, props to Scott for not going all 127 Hours on us and having Damon glug back a pouch of his own urine. Watney innovates to survive, though director Ridley Scott doesn’t really have the time or inclination to actually explain what he’s doing or how he’s doing it. Instead, the video diary acts as a cheap exposition outlet, and then to save time we only have to see the upshot, which will either result in disaster or triumph – each eventuality, you’ll be pleased to hear, resulting in a hard-earned LOL.

We should at this point get on to the nature of the LOLs themselves. Much of the film’s humour (rough estimate: 90 per cent?) involves saying how bad disco music is. Yet it is interesting that Watney conducts his business like he’s a cabaret performer in front of an audience, or being broadcast live on television. He’s characterised as an irrepressible superhero lunk who wears his vast knowledge base very lightly, and his relentlessly chipper attitude does make it hard for you to care whether he lives or dies. And that’s not out of malice, just the fact that in genre cinema of this type, it’s always the joker of the pack who’s first against the wall. Also, from the tonal outset of the film, Scott does absolutely nothing to suggest that there’s any real danger of him being crisped up and obliterated, and so its final hour Big Mad Rescue Mission offers the inevitable flat-pack functionality of an Ikea wardrobe.

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?

It’s a film that would pass the time on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and if you happen to find Matt Damon to be god’s gift to charming bastards, well then you might want to book early for this one. Yet, it’s not about anything at all. It has nothing to say. No statements to make. Not about our place in the solar system, not about the fragility of the human body, not about how humans are hard-wired for self-preservation, not about collective versus individual endeavour, not about why it’s important that we visit other planets. It says don’t worry, be happy – and Bobby McFerrin already said that in 1988.

Published 29 Sep 2015

Anticipation.

Sir Ridley never really manages to do it for us.

Enjoyment.

Wide-eyed, can-do sci-fi whimsy. It’s certainly enjoyable, but is it good?

In Retrospect.

Hmm… not really. Pro science and human endeavour, but also very much a fantasy.

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