Sentimental and sloppy, this depiction of Mars may well be more realistic than its predecessors but has a long way to go to catch up to the focused brilliance of Gravity.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 140 minutes
On a planet more orange than red, a botanist is reduced to eating vegetables grown in his and his former crew members’ excrement. That sounds a little icky, but the premise is obviously fascinating. One man has to survive the elements, including a lack of the two most crucial elements for human existence — oxygen and water — and wait it out until a rescue team can locate him and bring him back.
Matt Damon stars as said botanist, Mark Watney, who is left behind for dead by his five fellow astronauts during an evacuation from Mars, where they had been stationed for close to three weeks as part of the Ares 3 mission. Thanks to a bit of luck, which in this film always arrives just at the right time, and with remarkable frequency, Watney survives, but has to combat extreme loneliness and a decreasing supply of food and water.
Fortunately, the botanist has an oxygenator and enough hydrogen (thanks to the copious amount of fuel) for him to make water, which he subsequently uses to irrigate his newly cultivated nursery inside the mission’s space habitat. He is mighty creative, and it seems like everything he puts his mind to turns out to be a complete success.
That is certainly one of the film’s major dramatic issues. Despite the fundamental fact that this is a man alone on an entire planet with very few resources and, at least initially, no contact with the (outside) world, his psyche does not seem particularly affected nor do we see him struggle to accomplish any tasks. Granted, astronauts do receive an extraordinary amount of training prior to lift-off, but the sheer effortlessness of Watney’s actions here makes it seem like this whole survival business is a cinch, which serves absolutely no dramatic purpose for the viewer.
The only major challenge for Watney comes in the second half, mere seconds after the director of NASA tells his colleagues their plan to rescue him will work only on the assumption that everything on Mars keeps going well. Without so much as a breather, the film cuts to a giant explosion on the Red Planet that all but eliminates Watney’s chances of survival in the long term.
This is one of two unbelievable low points in the film. The other comes during the rescue at the end, when multiple problems, including speed and altitude, make it appear there is no way for the team to extricate Watney from the planet’s atmosphere. But lo and behold, as if by the hand of God, Watney inexplicably manages to steer himself right up to the spacecraft with minimal effort.
Compare this scene with the opening of Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity, in which we get a real appreciation of the smallness of man and the near-futility of his actions in an environment as unfathomably extensive as outer space. In Gravity, things often go wrong, and when they do, the character responds with emotion-fuelled but not emotion-driven reactions while putting all her scientific knowledge to use. In The Martian, Watney is clearly intelligent, but his intelligence and creativity are a simplistic solution to the screenplay’s lack of desire to develop any of the obstacles he has to overcome.
This is not where the film’s problems end, however, as the cinematography is an absolute disaster, too. Consider the shot that re-introduces us to the Martian landscape following the calamitous wind storm that sent the crew members off into space and left Watney to fend for himself. Instead of calmly presenting us with the spectre of one man on the planet, Scott decides to fly over the landscape like a majestic eagle looking for prey. In the words, exactly at the moment when the director should be conveying the desolation of his main character, he opts for a point of view that suggests some being floating right above him.
At another point, there is an absurd camera movement when the camera, clearly hand-held, rushes towards Watney at a particular action-packed moment inside the habitat. Scott, who is known as a serious director because of films he made more than 20 — some would say more than 30 — years ago, should now throw in the towel. While one may admire his above-average devotion to creating a more-or-less realistic depiction of life on Mars, the screenplay also combines the sentimentality of an Independence Day with the mind-numbing verbosity of Cast Away.
In the latter film, which Robert Zemeckis directed in 2000, Tom Hanks spent most of the film on a deserted island and spent most of the time speaking out loud to a basketball, “Wilson”. In The Martian, even though we get many different points of view (a conventional but deeply alienating way of providing a God’s-eye panorama of events), Watney makes continuous video logs, which ensures that not a minute of silence intrudes on the film’s generally chaotic propulsion.
Down on here, there is plain confusion among some of the most intelligent minds in the world. Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA, is played by an expressionless Jeff Daniels; Chiwetel Ejiofor channels a frustrated head of Mars missions whose every effort is stymied by Sanders; NASA’s director of media relations always discovers important information right as it is made public, and she never know what to do; and astrodynamicist Rich Purnell acts like a stoned college student rather than the genius behind the execution of the final act.
The film is divided into too many points of view, from Watney on Mars and his team on the Hermes spacecraft to astronomers at NASA in Houston, the scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Purnell in what appears to be a dorm room rather than at office, and even the Chinese National Space Agency, which comes to the aid of its American counterparts out of sheer, unadulterated big-heartedness. Clearly, Scott was scared to bog us down with a two-hour close-up of his main character’s actions all alone on Mars, but if J.C. Chandor could tackle this problem head-on in All is Lost, with unrelenting success, why did Scott have to be such a coward?
The Martian is focused on box-office success like a laser as it tries to inject humour (mostly via the disco music that the mission commander, Melissa Lewis, left behind upon evacuation to Watney’s great dismay) into the goings-on. But we cannot take events very seriously when everything keeps going rights, every time. Sure, there is a missile misfire and an explosion on Mars, but these issues are resolved within a scene or two and without any major time spent on the development of these solutions. Scenes such as Apollo 13’s brainstorming sessions to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole” are sadly missing here, as we only get an abridged final presentation of the solution played for laughs, which detracts from the hours of overtime spent coming up with a plan that makes sure the person being saved doesn’t die in the process.
Although entertaining, the film loses focus and skips over important stages on Mars by padding itself with scenes of comedy played on Earth. Scott does very little to distinguish his film from similarly conventional fare, especially insofar as (the lack of) character development is concerned, and delivers a film far less intelligent and creative than its main character supposedly is.