The main criticism directed towards Ridley Scott’s The Martian is that it is a series of hard sci-fi/engineering problems strung together on a thin plot with minimal characterization. This is true, but I’m not sure it qualifies as a criticism. It’s a bit like complaining that an Agatha Christie novel is largely an exercise of applying logical inductions and deductions to some forensic observations.
So, The Martian, adapted from the Andy Weir novel of the same name, begins with astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) getting stranded on Mars during an abortive NASA mission. The movie is largely about Watney’s efforts to keep himself alive while NASA scrambles to rescue him.
The movie succeeds because it eschews the melodrama and sentimentality that tend to colour Robinson Crusoe stories like this in favor of boiling down hard sci-fi to its procedural basics. In spite of the Watney’s dire and extreme situation, The Martian is less interested in playing it for drama than it is as an intellectual puzzle. The result is something which will likely alienate those expecting another Cast Away or Apollo 13 while appealing to the nerdier people who have at least a few Asimov and Heinlein novels on their shelves.
And I’m not gonna lie: I had more fun with this than I did with Fury Road. Probably because I do indeed have a copy of Heinlein’s Red Planet stuffed away somewhere in my room.
This was unexpected. I didn’t have a lot of hype going into it, mostly due to Ridley Scott’s name being attached. While Alien and Blade Runner are two of the best sci-fi flicks ever, a lot of his subsequent filmography has struck me as either uninteresting or pretentious, and Prometheus kinda killed any expectation I had that he might be able to re-bottle the old lightning. Although The Martian isn’t a groundbreaking film, it does show that the man can direct an excellent piece of entertainment. Indeed, its rather workmanlike approach is part of what makes it work, as it really is the more self-consciously Important or Deep aspects of Scott’s oeuvre that leave a bad taste in my mouth.
A lot of this is also helped by the peppy tone of it all; Scott doesn’t attempt to ape 2001’s deadpan style, instead opting for a movie filled with nerd humor and Disco, with Damon giving a rather Bro-Dude performance. Again, your mileage may vary on these aesthetic choices, but they hit all the right notes for me.
And anyway, it’s not like reality is substantially classier here: the only images we seem to be receiving from Mars these days are robot selfies.