Film Review: The Martian

Director: Ridley Scott

You can just about accurately judge what type of movie you’re letting yourself in for by the choice of song used over the end credits. It’s Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic ‘I Will Survive’ and it’s not subtle. After a movie’s worth of disco hits interspersed generously among the action, it was only a matter of time before Gaynor showed up and dashed any chances of me not thinking Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi opus to be somewhat laughable.

To be fair, The Martian is far from irredeemable . It’s got plenty to commend it, even if it is a standard tale of the human spirit’s triumph over the perils of nature. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, who is stranded on Mars after being hit by debris during an emergency evacuation. He begins efforts to improve his chances of survival, while simultaneously communicating with NASA, which starts planning his safe return.

The scenes on Mars are the most engaging parts of the film, even if they’re disrupted by almost clichéd establishing shots that scream “Isn’t Mars a beautiful planet?” Beautiful maybe, but also deadly. Watney’s attempts to grow crops go awry, he almost blows himself up and is forced to perform surgery on himself.  Luckily, Damon’s likeability as Watney means it’s not a slog to watch his attempts at survival.

Unfortunately, that’s also one of his character’s biggest problems. It’s easy to be in Watney’s company, but his story is a completely unrealistic portrayal of a man alone on an inhospitable planet. Back on Earth, there’s a lot of talk about Watney’s psychological state and the damage the loneliness/likelihood of death is doing to his mind. Predictably, one of these exchanges cuts to a shot of a jolly Watney roaming around his HAB eating potatoes and tomato ketchup. Once is funny. Any more than that and you wonder if Watney is really human. From day one he’s up and about solving mathematical equations and cracking wise about his situation to the log. Everything is water off a duck’s back to Watney. It’s only when his crops die that he starts screaming to himself, as if the script is trying to claw back some of the humanity written out of Watney’s character.

Despite some distinct, almost sociopathic character flaws, it’s still much easier to watch Watney on Mars than it is to see NASA executives bicker over what to do with him. Jeff Daniels is painfully miscast as the Director of NASA; he lacks the gravitas inherent in such a role. He reminds the audience of who he’s supposed to be in the blandest possible way: “I’m the Director of NASA.” Daniels’ concern is about as animated as a sponge, even when things turn out for the better. Sean Bean isn’t much better but manages to wrangle some emotion out of his performance, while Kristin Wiig looks like she’s straining not to make a wisecrack . Unfortunately, her press officer ends up being the most pointless character in the film; Wiig is left with little to do other than spout a couple of lines about “bad PR.”

The scenes on Earth are all but saved by Chitewel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, Head of Mars Operations, and Donald Glover as astrophysicist Rich Purnell. The former’s range of motivations and emotions fill the screen with subtlety and class, making him the film’s most believable performer. Ejiofor’s transition from semi-sarcastic joker to thoughtful philosopher is so smooth that it’s a shame Vincent actually doesn’t have much to do. Donald Glover’s short turn is the most pleasurable sequence set on Earth. Rich Purnell is a slacker with a brilliant mind. On paper these conventional overtones are enough to make you sick, but Glover carries it off so well that he overshadows everyone. NASA disregards him as a loser-nobody – pfft, astrophysicists know nothing about space – but everybody’s favourite rapper Childish Gambino saves the day with his amazing thought processes.

The overall turgid nature of the scenes on Earth highlight how much The Martian could have benefited from a damn good edit job, not to mention a complete rewrite of the screenplay. The film is so bloated by story alone that it’s difficult to fully invest in Watney’s plight. NASA’s internal squabbles negate suspense:  In a horribly directed scene Daniels walks up to the camera and says “Let’s just pray nothing terrible happens.” The camera lingers on his face on his face before cutting back to Mars where, surprise surprise, something terrible happens. If  the film focussed on Watney and his attempts to survive, the audience could spend some time guessing whether help really was on its way. The potential to be a more engaging, claustrophobic and interesting tale of survival against all odds is tossed aside to make room for a very cheesy subplot in which the world unites.

I’ve been extremely harsh on The Martian but I did secretly enjoy it. It didn’t need to be 140 minutes long, but the time went by quickly. Perhaps it’s because I spent most of my time trying not to laugh, especially when, randomly, the Chinese almost step in to save the day alongside Glover’s scientific prowess. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that Ridley Scott helmed several sci-fi classics . The Martian does nothing to rectify Scott’s recent shaky record, but it’s worth a watch, even if it’s just a masterclass in how not to script a suspenseful and believable tale of survival against the odds.

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