Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is undoubtedly his best film in years, a return to form to the simple and stylish science fiction that made him famous in the seventies and eighties. Though most of the film takes place on computer-generated landscapes, they are beautiful in their composition. Drew Goddard’s screenplay brings a lot of great humor into the story, which is grounded by great performances from Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain and more. It is also based on the insanely popular novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which garnered acclaim for its realistic story and incredible amount of scientific detail. It is this, sadly, that ultimately prevents the film from taking liftoff, so to speak.
The story is that of Mark Watney, played by Damon, an astronaut stranded on Mars after losing track of his crew in a dust storm. Armed with nothing but a video diary program (through which most of Damon’s scenes are viewed), his botany and engineering skills and his winning personality, Watney must survive at least three years, so that the next mission can come get him. Back on the ground, the heads of NASA (Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a series of comedians in cameo appearances scramble to try and find a way to bring Watney back home before he goes insane, starves or otherwise perishes alone, millions of miles away.
As already said, “The Martian” is visually stunning, and has a lot of good things going for it. The cast is stellar, the pacing is excellent, the characters are mostly very well realized and the script is sharp and funny. All of this however, cannot save the film from the fact that its story is flat and empty. Not to spoil anything, but there is nary a moment of tension over the course of the entire two-and-a-half-hours, and never a danger I did not have absolute confidence in Watney to escape. As funny as the script can be, a good third of it is dedicated to building up the hero’s likability, and another third is all explanation of how everything at NASA works. About half an hour into the film, we know what everything does and that Watney, the charming genius that he is, can manipulate everything to work in his favor. Watney always gets up after being knocked down, and unlike Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity,” has absolutely no flaws in his character or charm. And yet we are expected to worry about him.
Even in moments of dire peril, there is no real threat, because as an audience we know that there’s still an entire hour left in the movie. I was never bored watching the film, but I was also never worried that there would be anything but a happy ending. As much as I would like to say this is because of the fact that I am jaded and that I watch too many movies, ultimately I have to place blame on the idea of “hard” sci-fi. Though lines and lines of exposition may be interesting to science buffs, it becomes a placeholder for excitement and general plot, which forces “The Martian” to remain earthbound.