“The Martian” movie: A smug motherfucker, marooned

“The Martian” movie: A smug motherfucker, marooned


“That didn’t have a thing to do with the triumph of the human spirit,” my girlfriend Dana observed as we walked out of a screening of The Martian. “It was just like, ‘He’s a crazy wizard who can grow potatoes on Mars!'”

It’s true: Ridley Scott’s fast-paced and jaunty adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel succeeds as entertainment in the way a morning TV talk show succeeds. There are lots of teases and quick segments that stay interesting for a few minutes but don’t outstay their welcome, and at no time does anyone on either side of the screen get too stressed about anything. Difficulties are acknowledged, somberly nodded at, and overcome.

There are numerous odd decisions in this film, but perhaps the least explicable is the decision to forgo any sustained effort to convey the psychological strain of being alone on a planet with scant hope of rescue. As soon as astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) realizes he’s been marooned by an expedition crew who thought him dead in a sandstorm, he gets straight to work as though surviving a year on Mars is his Eagle Scout service project.

We quickly realize that we’re going to spend about as much time on Earth as on Mars in this movie, as Drew Goddard’s screenplay whisks us back to Mission Control, where a hipster satellite operator (Mackenzie Davis) realizes Watney has survived the storm, spurring a global effort to bring him home.

In an exchange that Dana kept repeating to herself, amid giggles, while we drove home, NASA’s somber director (Jeff Daniels) questions the decision to drop everything and rescue Watney. “It’s bigger than one person,” Daniels intones. Sean Bean, another administrator, has a snappy comeback: “No, it’s not!” End of scene.

There are a lot of shout-outs to science in The Martian, but it’s not really about science any more than Pawn Sacrifice is about chess. A lot of things are declared to us, and we just have to play along—because, science. You can make water that way? A tarp will work there? That thing still works? Okay, Matt, whatever you say.

Actually, a better analogy than a morning TV talk show might be a series of YouTube tutorials—especially since much of the movie is narrated by Watney speaking into his video-log recorder with a self-possessed panache that might be touching if it actually seemed like a survival strategy rather than a native smarminess. Watley seems to feel entitled to the world’s adulation, which is an especially bad look for this character given that the actor portraying him is IRL a straight white guy who’s lately had (to put it generously) some empathy issues.

Maybe Watney could’ve been made more human and vulnerable if we learned anything about his relationships with friends and family back on Earth, but except for a glancing mention of his mother, The Martian is conspicuously silent on the question of Watney’s family ties. Is there anyone back on Earth who this guy gives a damn about? If so, the filmmakers don’t think we need to know.

Strangely, we learn more about the families of Watney’s spaceborne crew members—in other words, the characters who are supporting the movie’s supporting characters. Even for those visibly beloved men and women, though, when it comes down to whether or not saving Watney is worth risking their marriages, they don’t hesitate. Gotta go back and get that dude! He’s the hero here!

Though The Martian is diverting enough as it skips along from scene to scene, with Watney wizarding his various engineering challenges while the people back home try to cook up a workable rescue plan (if you think there’s not going to be a scene where a bright young man in glasses slams a pot of coffee while he runs the numbers on an idea that’s so crazy it just might work, I have some seaside real estate on Syrtis Major to sell you), it’s far less compelling than either of the two films that serve as its most obvious comparison points.

As a tale of survival outside Earth’s atmosphere, The Martian doesn’t hold a candle to Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Gravity (2013), which set a new bar for the cinematic portrayal of spaceflight—and contained a riveting human survival story as well. The Martian‘s climactic scene, set in Mars orbit, is a yawner compared to the nail-biting, stomach-turning exploits of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The Martian also sorely misses the humane hand of Ron Howard, whose Apollo 13 (1995) now looks like a masterclass in weaving tension and emotion from the interplay between stranded spacefarers and their Earthbound boosters. Both Howard and Cuarón succeed in convincingly portraying the ways in which astronauts rely on human ingenuity to preserve them against the unrelenting vacuum of space. Watney, well, just never seems all that worried about it.

Though there are various twists and turns in The Martian, the biggest surprise for me came when the credits rolled and I was reminded that this was a movie by Ridley Scott: one of the greatest science-fiction filmmakers of all time, responsible for such eerie masterpieces as Blade RunnerAlien, and Prometheus. Of course, Scott has also proved himself capable of turning out turgid thunder (see: any of his films with a title containing the word ConquestKingdom, or Exodus), and in this case he’s let some of that self-important spectacle leak out into space.

The Martian: bring him home! Like, maybe, from a Redbox.

Jay Gabler