Ridley Scott’s survival and rescue adventure The Martian doggedly resists sci-fi distractions, instead favoring a hearty mix of respectable astrophysics and vaguely plausible pseudo-science to tell the story of stranded Mars astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he struggles to survive on the red planet, as well as efforts by NASA and his old crewmates to bring him to safety. By design, this is a story that buries itself eagerly in all manner of the mundane: surviving, thinking, traveling long distances slowly, planning, surviving some more, and so forth. Consequently, it requires discipline and exertion to ward off fanciful solutions to real problems, save for a handful of minor expedients that, presumably, only hardcore techies will have any issues with. About the only truly outlandish detail comes late in the film, when it’s assumed we’ll all accept with a straight face that CNN is still the loftiest figurehead in broadcast journalism.
From Drew Goddard’s pen (adapting from Andy Weir’s 2011 debut novel) emerges an Aaron Sorkin-esque overhaul of the Apollo 13 story, but with fewer speeches. After shows like Sports Night and The West Wing, Sorkin had forever altered team-in-crisis-mode stories to highlight quick thinking, fast talking, individuated personalities, and complications that arise not just from outside the group, but, more frequently, from team members making mistakes and poor decisions. The Martian follows the Sorkin prototype to the extent that the characters on Earth, who must design an unprecedented rescue mission to save Watney, and the crewmates who were forced to leave him behind, each share a variation on his loneliness and anxiety, relieved intermittently by contact and a shared effort. Goddard, hitherto best known for his long working relationship with Joss Whedon, shows that influence as well, with the liberal application of funny dialogue as a counterweight to a lot of potentially gloomy material.
Given this, there was the potential for The Martian to be emotionally and tonally rich science fiction, tied up not necessarily with hard facts, but with the persistent illusion of due diligence. What we get instead is a misfortune of the neither-fish-nor-fowl variety, seemingly fraught with the worry that the movie will be too techy for the layperson, and not enough for the experts, armchair or otherwise. The cast is shotgunned with genuine movie stars and vivid character actors, but only occasionally does lived behavior (sleeping on a cot near your computer, drinking cold coffee, not showering for days on end) distract from the lockstep of the careworn survival/rescue script. It’s packed with almost every hedge-betting design feature imaginable, and the result is a tasteless gruel that’s safe for everyone.
The science in The Martian, which is vaguely set in the present, is allowed to be a little bit more fugazi than usual because, on a technicality, a manned mission to Mars is still science fiction; the green light to resist scrutinizing the film for technical errors couldn’t be brighter or greener. What’s emphasized is the thrill of “the real,” the dopamine hit you get when you’re part of a team, figuring stuff out, getting stuff done, the brainy narcotic that makes a good high school chemistry class breeze by and dulls the fact that the math and the telemetry and everything else is, for most of us normals, dull. It’s a big-budget feature film for the “I fucking love science” generation.
Unfortunately, The Martian feel anesthetized not locally, but altogether. It hardly seems interested in its characters or in any depiction of their work, settling instead for types of characters and kinds of scenes, correctly placed among the pendulum swings of Watney’s dramatic journey. When a character says, after ticking off a months-long itinerary for carrying out an extraction, “...and that’s if nothing goes wrong…,” you’d have to be a Martian yourself not to predict that the film will immediately cut to something going very, very wrong. The Martian goes in for the idea of texture and tics and human behavior, but there’s no conviction, and no real push for eccentricity. What’s left is a string of Pavlovian prompts to ensure that our emotional cues arrive on schedule.
Nor is there much awe. Since ancient astronomers spotted Mars in our sky, thousands of years ago, it’s been a constant source of nourishment for artists and storytellers, but there’s nothing in The Martian’s vision of the red planet that matches the wonderment of, say, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’s work on Alan Moore’s Watchmen, or the haunted depictions in Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. When Watney muses to his video diary about the billions of years that’d passed on Mars before he set foot on this or that hill, he’s only right in fact. In spirit, in imagination, we’d already conquered it, and Scott’s intrepid botanist is merely a johnny-come-lately, in a film where curiosity is in shorter supply than the oxygen.