Nothing Grows from the Martian Surface

Full disclosure: I’ve never read Andy Weir’s The Martian, the novel from which Ridley Scott’s newest film by the same name was adapted. I have no idea how strictly Scott stuck to the novel’s plot and characters, or if the only thing he took from Weir was the title. Maybe, if I’d read the book, I’d have known how silly the movie was going to be. Maybe, but who knows.

Silly movies can be good (The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Silly movies can be great (Caddy Shack, The Producers). But the major prerequisite of any movie played for laughs is that the audience knows: hey, this is going to be silly.

But Scott and the movie’s promotion team at 20th Century Fox failed spectacularly at informing us what type of movie this was going to be. I thought I was going to see an exploration into the limits of survival, the grit of human spirit, and the psyche of a man who is completely alone. Instead, I saw Matt Damon charm, complain about disco music, and give high school science lessons for two hours.

Damon plays Mark Watney, a NASA botanist who is part of the ARES III manned mission to Mars and who gets stranded on the planet by the rest of the crew (Jessica Chastain, Aksel Henny, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, and Sebastian Stan) when they mistake him for dead. After inadvertently learning of Watney’s survival, top brass at NASA, Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), have to figure out how to “Bring Him Home.” Watney catalogues his survival mission through a series of video diary entries that never seem to serve any purpose other than for him to talk to (and often explain things to) the audience.

small martian

Damon is funny as Watney. He’s energetic. He uses his magnetic, all-American smile at will. He’s in constant conversation with us. And he’s charismatic, not to mention millennial, at one point saying he is going to “science the shit out of this.” But does this part really call for likability? He’s energetic, but never manic; smiling, but never unhinged; in conversation with us, but never with himself. Damon could have pushed the limits on Watney and done something memorable. Instead he settled for something ordinary: a vanilla prom king.

Most of the more dramatic scenes (that happen at regular, predictable intervals) fall flat. When a plan fails, or a faulty piece of equipment jeopardizes Watney’s survival, Damon will yell or erupt physically. These bursts don’t seem forced (despite his tame performance, he’s still a good actor); they just don’t seem earned by Watney. He’s an overwhelmingly (read: unbelievably) calm and optimistic character in the face of unfathomable circumstances. With the exception of one visceral opening scene in which Watney has to staple himself shut, he never believes he’s in any actual danger. This improbable obliviousness could fall back on Damon, but there is only so much he can do with an overly cheerful character like Watney.

The budget for The Martian ($108 million) didn’t get blown on the actors (despite a pretty studly cast). No, the big bucks went to the CGI. And, God, was it well spent. It’s the movie’s biggest attribute. It’s hard to tell if The Martian surface is computer generated or if Damon got a free trip from NASA. The environment is seamless.

If you’re going to watch this movie, don’t expect to be wowed. Expect a feel-good story about a likable guy trying to get home. And enjoy it (maybe On-Demand, or something). For all its faults, it’s a solid story with enough interesting plot points to keep moving and keep our attention. Plus it’s well shot, with some flawless visual effects and sharp cinematography. Too bad though the credits roll sitcom-style, with still-frames of characters with brimming smiles, all to the soundtrack of “Love Train.” This love train, though, will have to leave without me.

Grade: C. It does enough to get by, but that’s it.