Summer has come to an end. The days are getting longer, the leaves are changing and school is well under way. As movie fans, we all know what that means: it’s Oscar-bait time!
Yes, it’s that glorious time of the year when the studios finally stop shelling out juvenile and repetitive blockbusters and introduce a bunch of by-the-numbers biopics (what’s up Steve Jobs!), pretentious and overacted drivel (here’s to you, 2014’s Birdman), and decently-made, feel-good films that will clean up in award season but which wouldn’t stand a chance in festivals. Director Ridley Scott’s latest big-budget space feature, The Martian is definitely the latter.
It’s a story that has been told a thousand times, but one that audiences never seem to get tired of: a lone hero, stranded without any conceivable possibility of help, is forced to fend for himself in the wild until he is rescued against all odds from his harrowing adventure.
Plenty of good movies have been made from this premise—All is Lost and Cast Away come to mind—and The Martian is timely in establishing its survivor story in an extraterrestrial setting, what with the commercial and critical success of space films like Gravity and Interstellar in recent years. Unfortunately, something just doesn’t quite work here.
As much as I hate to say it, most of The Martian’s problems could be boiled down to the forgettably vanilla showing of its star, the usually terrific Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney.
Damon has shown himself to be a highly diverse actor over the years, consistently delivering believable performances as anything from a troubled genius to an alpha-male politician, even showing range as a first-rate jackass, a particularly difficult feat for many leading men. Still, he hit all of the wrong notes in this one.
Despite being trapped on a planet some 250 million miles from Earth and with scarcely enough resources to survive, Damon rarely flinches, with the notable exception of one gut-wrenching scene of self-surgery. Perhaps it was Scott’s and Damon’s intention to have the character remain so cheery and optimistic in the face of near certain doom, but it served to diffuse all the dramatic tension rather than show Watney as some paradigm of Hemingwayian stoicism.
Even in a scene where Watney details what to tell his parents in the result of a failed rescue, Damon never once portrays any realistic reasonable doubt that his character will make it through things alright in the end.
Sure Watney says he is in trouble, vocalizing the possibility that this mission could be a one-way trip after all, but it is not enough to merely say the lines. In order for the audience to feel a real connection to the character and truly want him to return home, it needs to see the desperation and struggle for itself, witness some kind of physical toll, mental breakdown or other indicator of verisimilitude.
At times, Damon’s character felt painfully aware that he was in a movie and this made it difficult to immerse oneself in his plight. In fairness, not all of this was Damon’s fault as an actor.
The dialogue was painfully cheesy, with lines such as, “Let’s science the shit out of this” and a heap of look-how-impressive-and-scientific-this-is-techno-babble clogging the script. Wherever this problem originated, it stood out like a sore thumb.
There were plenty of redeeming qualities about The Martian. Visually, it was a beautiful film to behold, particularly the edge-of-your-seat rescue sequence and the use of the Valley of the Moon in Jordan to portray the dusty emptiness of the red planet.
And while I wasn’t the biggest fan of most of the awkwardly placed humor—or the casting of comedic actress Kristen Wiig for that matter—there was a fantastic bit of meta-humor in a scene where Sean Bean’s character discussed a rescue initiative named after a character from the Lord of the Rings, movies in which he famously appeared.
Nevertheless, I expect that Scott and Damon’s names will carry enough influence for the film to be a hit with the Academy, as it has already proved to be with mainstream critics and audiences. And if you are a person who likes easy, sentimental, feel-good movies, I would definitely recommend The Martian.
Of all the movies I’ve seen, it reminded me the most of Ben Affleck’s 2012 hit Argo. Both star talented Boston actors in success stories that take as few risks as possible and appeal to a wide array of audiences from casual moviegoers to more seasoned film buffs. Neither is a bad movie, but I think you will find that both are remarkably forgettable.