In Director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s bestselling novel The Martian, the Ares III mission for NASA is in the middle of its month-long trip on the planet Mars when a storm arrives sooner than expected and the crew is forced to evacuate the planet. Only one member is unable to return to the ship in time for take-off, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and when his bio-monitor reads to Cdr. Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the rest of the mission’s crew as dead, they are forced to leave Mars immediately for the safety of the rest of the team.
That is the closest the movie comes at all to communicating any level of danger towards its characters. And it doesn’t even prove fatal for, you see, Watney’s bio-monitor was simply damaged by debris when he was caught in the storm. He’s still alive.
And thus the rest of the nearly 2 and a half hour runtime of the movie is spent with Watney considering his scenario and what is left of the Hab and getting straight to finding his way to get off and survive this space island. In an extremely breezy 2 and a half hours, by the way. The movie is not much threatening or weighty or even really full of momentum to its plot, but what Scott does do is make sure that the movie still feels kind of fun – what with the help of Damon’s extraordinarily high spirited performance as Watney (the guy is a clear distance away from Sandra Bullock’s fearful uncertainty in Gravity, another movie that’s basically space Cast Away) and Goddard giving not only Watney a bunch of hyper-Whedonesque (having previously worked with the one-line machine on The Cabin in the Woods) monologues to spit to various video diary entries but hyper-Whedon dialogue to spin around in the scenes focusing on the men and women in NASA trying to figure out a way to bring Watney home safe. Of course, the case of that self-satisfied writing, your mileage will eventually give out – but the dialogue does more than to just make characters look oh so smart and oh so witty. It also lets the movie introduce several logical games to play – from what Watney will do to communicate with the folks on Earth to how they’ll be able to pick him up on their go-round Mars. It doesn’t exactly justify stretching out a plot to the length The Martian is, but it does give it some semblance of a plot.
It probably would have done better if it gave everybody who isn’t Watney or Lewis some semblance of characters. But hey, we can’t have everything. Even when the members of NASA and the Ares III team are played by such accomplished actors as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, and Donald Glover, I cannot think of a single distinguishing characteristic between them all and most of their appearance becomes a nuisance when it goes into either forced drama between characters like the director of NASA (Daniels) and Ares III’s mission director (Bean) or just outright tangents where Goddard really to show how much he learned from Joss Whedon by having them snark briefly while discussing the life-and-death situation of a man to talk about Tolkien references. It really shows just how useless the movie feels when it muddles around in moments like this.
But that’s fine because even when it does, Scott is really back in formidable style. It may feel like Goddard’s movie when you watch it because of how all the characters don’t really shut up (which gets in the way of making Watney feel, I don’t know, isolated? Like he’s supposed to) but the visual aspect is among the most immersive experiences I can remember having in a year where visual effects feel kind of easy to call out amongst movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and so on. No, the truth here is that it’s hard to tell where the photographically impressive visual effects end and Arthur Max’s production design begin and vice-versa when they both are so seamlessly brought together in a bold orange Martian landscape and cold industrial tone for the NASA scenes by Darius Wolski, while editor Pietro Scalia and Scott’s choice of framing for the dialogue scenes make this craft hidden in plain sight for us. It doesn’t call attention to itself – which is a shame since it may be the best thing the movie has going for it and is the finest work Scott has done in a long while – but it lets the rest of the film feel more lived-in than its script should have earned.
And so in the end, we have a film that’s made really well as spectacle, even if it’s going to pretend it’s not that, with a lead performance of Damon that is interested strictly in keeping the crowd amused while figuring out his way around puzzles to keep himself alive. But since those very puzzles never once feel like they won’t be solved and we never get the sense, try as much as the film would, that Watney’s death is just around the corner – even when we see more than one abrupt scene of an explosion – there’s just not much more weight or immediacy to the movie than Gravity or Apollo 13. It is regrettably forgettable. The fact that it’s all but certain to be a Best Picture nominee has much to state about the state of 2015 cinema. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to enjoy in the moment, just that we won’t be taking home any of its unchallenging thoughts or scenarios after. We’ll leave them right back on the rock where we met them.