Ask most people to name their favorite science fiction films, and many of the answers you’ll get aren’t really science fiction. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA/Hong Kong/UK 1982) is film noir set in the future. Alien (Ridley Scott, USA/UK 1979) is a horror film set in space. Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013) is a chase film set in space. Even Star Wars (George Lucas, USA 1977) is really a traditional sword-and-sorcery fantasy film set in space. Science fiction is one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of film. Science fiction has to be about real or imagined technology, and the problems and results of that technology have to be central to the film.
The Martian, on the other hand, is a real science fiction film. What is it about? The difficulties of getting a man back home after he is left on mars following a manned mission that is cut short. It doesn’t have a deeper point to make (to its detriment) and it doesn’t use Mars as a backdrop to make a film that has little to do with its setting. It really is two and a half hours of watching to see how he survives long enough for NASA to get him back to earth.
In a way, it’s charming, since it means this film is a throwback to the days of true science fiction, which has largely disappeared in recent years. However, even true science fiction needs to have something to tell us. The greatest science fiction film ever made is 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968), which is true science fiction but has a point about the necessity of mistakes to evolution. The Martian really doesn’t have anything to tell us. One could argue that its message is that science is the ultimate method of problem solving, but it doesn’t really do a lot to further that message. Rather it seems that its generally pro-science viewpoint is just reflective of its primary character’s view.
Ridley Scott is an unlikely purveyor of this film. His successes in films set in the future and/or in space have not been in actual science fiction films. He also has spent much of the last two decades making films that function as Christian-based revisionist histories. That’s not really the background one expects for a hard science fiction tale. He’s also long been one of the world’s most overrated filmmakers, with his early films being extremely overpraised and his recent work being rightly dismissed as the empty, dull, formulaic nonsense that it is.
And yet, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (yes, he of The Cabin in the Woods!) concocted a story, characters, and dialogue that were perfect for reaching the low sights set for the film. Mark Watney isn’t the deepest or most fascinating character in the world, but he’s sure easy to root for. And just when he seems unrealistically positive, he tells NASA to go fuck themselves for not telling his crew of his situation and for questioning his decisions on the surface. The other characters are also a bit shallow, but they don’t have a chance to show us much, and they are all given enough to be memorable, which is all you can ask. Further, while the film doesn’t have a point, its story still was fun and never bored me, even at its rather long 142 minute run time. His drive and determination never completely fail and he always keeps his sense of humor, but he loses his composure and falters just enough times that Mark stays someone we can aspire to be, which is the perfect mix for this character.
Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Who has spent a bizarre amount of his career working on films starring Johnny Depp . . . it’s like he’s Depp’s personal cinematographer.) were somewhere in between competent and excellent. They use a lot of very long shots to emphasize the loneliness, isolation, and desolation of Mars, and a surprising amount of the scenery was real (given that the film was not, you know, actually shot on Mars). However, they turned to CGI just often enough that sometimes it took away from the bleakness of Watney’s situation and they seem to have had no interest in the dynamic use of lighting or color, eschewing any real dramatic flair. The look didn’t really enhance what the film had to say, but it didn’t get in the way as often as it could have if the CGI were used more heavily.
The part of this film that’s going to get the most attention is the performance of Matt Damon. Damon is one of the most instantly charismatic movie stars in the world, and his likability is so extreme that it could be a hindrance in some roles, but that absolute magnetism is absolutely perfect here. He’s a talented actor who didn’t really have much to do as the wisecracking, smart, mostly positive Watney, but it’s really not a waste considering how important it was for us to root for him. It’s not a deep role and certainly not one that should be winning him awards, but he is an absolutely perfect choice. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the only other person who really gets much screen time, and he is given a little more depth, which he plays well. The only other person who was really noticeable was Sean Bean, and that was for the same reason he’s usually noticeable: he’s terrible.
Harry Gregson-Williams’s score is excellent. He keeps things rather minimalist and doesn’t try to draw attention to what he’s doing, but the music is consistently adding to the film’s mood throughout. It’s a quietly great job.
All told, The Martian is a fine but rather empty film. It doesn’t really have anything to tell us, but it’s fun to watch it prattle on with nothing to say anyway, and that’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s worth a watch, especially if you like true science fiction, but don’t expect anything earth-shattering.
- If I’m ever marooned on Mars for a year and a half, I want the first human face I see to be Jessica Chastain. Well, unless Karen Gillan is available.
- Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon have been in two big-budget science fiction films together in the last two years and have been on screen together for about five seconds total. That’s just rather weird.
- Mark’s wisecracking really didn’t seem to hit with the audience in the theater where I saw the film (The “Space Pirate” bit, for example, didn’t get a single laugh.), but wow did that “Council of Elrond” bit hit. I think there is a bit of soft sexism in that the only person who doesn’t know who Elrond is also happens to be the only woman involved in the discussion. (The film does, however, make the commander of the Mars mission a woman. She’s even the typical heroic military commander who won’t leave a man behind. That probably makes up for it.)
- I kept expecting Mackenzie Davis to put on headphones, crank up some heavy music, and start writing some insane computer code that would solve everything. As did the three other people who watch Halt and Catch Fire.
- It was sort of charming how the film assumed that NASA still exists well into the future like this. And funny how it acted like NASA would be the most advanced space agency. The US has been cutting spending on science at every opportunity for years, and NASA has typically been first on the chopping block.
- I have heard Kristen Wiig’s name many, many, many times. She seems to be a really big name, based on how often I’ve heard it. This is actually the first time I’ve ever seen her in anything. She didn’t make an impression or have an opportunity to, but I thought it was interesting that I’ve heard her name so often without ever seeing her before.
- I don’t think they ever tell us exactly when this film is set, but it seems to be the relatively near future. It’s scary that disco is still alive then. It’s scarier still that someone then can want to listen to ABBA. I’m not sure that’s okay even for Jessica Chastain.
- Added October 7, 2015: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast this week included an interview with Andy Weir. Premium members also got an extended version of the interview (about 45 minutes long). They promise to review the film this week, so I will add a link once they do, for anyone (like me) who wants to know about the science that’s too technical for me to notice in the theater.