The Martian's Most Effective Moments Come Too Late
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2015 1 Oct
DVD Release Date: January 12, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: October 2, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity)
Run Time: 141 min.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover
Space might be the final frontier, but it's also an increasingly popular destination at the movies. The last few years have brought big-budget space-travel stories to movie screens, to sometimes spectacular results. Gravity (2013) was the most satisfying—a dazzling combination of camerawork, special effects and strong performances that built to a thrilling climax. Last year's highly hyped Interstellar carried the weight of a sometimes ponderous but popular director (Christopher Nolan) and a lead role for a star (Matthew McConaughey) known mostly for lightweight romantic-comedies. But Interstellar was as ambitious as it was long, and it had a strong undercurrent about parent-child relationships that gave the film a very human dimension beyond its space-and-science talk.
Before both of those films came Ridley Scott's Prometheus, a prequel of sorts to Scott's sci-fi classic Alien (1979). Reception of Prometheus was mixed, but it was a great-looking movie hindered by silly, even offensive (from a religious perspective) ideas.
The Martian, the latest outer-space saga, which is also directed by Scott (Exodus: Gods and Kings), eschews general space for a more specific destination: Mars. As the subject of books and movies that have captured the public's imagination for ages, the Red Planet presents a challenge for artists who want to anchor new stories there. What can they do to make Mars seem fresh to audiences who have seen pictures of the planet in numerous earlier films, in footage returned from probes, or simply via images in their own minds?
As with Prometheus, The Martian, based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel of the same name, always looks good, but it has problems of its own. The journey from Earth to Mars is long, and at times we can feel the minutes crawling during the extended trip to rescue stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon, Promised Land). This time slog is partly intentional on the part of the filmmakers, who want us to feel Mark's diminishing chances of survival as his rescuers "race" to save him. But it's also a problem for the viewer, who can feel stuck in a story that drags dramatically just as it should be revving up the tension. An inspirational finale softens the disappointment somewhat, but all the science talk and show of teamwork serve a story that only fitfully reaches its potential.
Watney had been part of a team of astronauts carrying out a mission on Mars when a fierce storm forced them to head for their spacecraft and escape the planet's surface. Believing Watney to have died during the rush, his team leaves his body behind while they head home.
But back at NASA headquarters, the group's leader (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber To) sees images from Mars that convince him Watney is still alive. The question then becomes: how should NASA inform the public—and Watney's grieving crew—that Watney needs to be rescued? Can the astronaut survive long enough to allow his crew to turn around and come back for him?
During the scenes where the film focuses on Watney and his ingenious methods for survival—he's a botanist, he informs us while recording his thoughts on video—it's interesting and even surprising. The talk-to-a-camera gimmick cleverly allows for extended exposition while the story centers on only one character. But The Martian falters when it shifts back to NASA and during the final 30-or-so minutes, when it focuses on Watney's crew returning to save him.
As mentioned, the tension should be mounting as the mission reaches its culmination, but Scott clutters up his finale with too many characters. Sure, they're supposed to be working together to give us a show of good old-fashioned American know-how in action (ala Apollo 13), but asking well-known actors like Kristen Wiig (The Skeleton Twins), Michael Pena (Ant-Man) and Kate Mara (Captive) to do so little feels like a missed opportunity. Worse, Watney becomes passive as he begins to deteriorate physically and mentally.
As Watney recedes from the story, the leader of Watney's team (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) becomes more central. "Keep it together! Work the problem!" she shouts to the others responsible for Watney's rescue, and we're supposed to feel the crew carrying out a no-margin-for-error mission. But then Scott throws in a kiss between crew members that seems to come out of nowhere and leads to nothing. What was the point of that?
As the finale drags on, little moments like that kiss begin to add up, keeping the film from being the home run it could have been were it not spread so thin. A rousing final few minutes may leave viewers in a forgiving mood—and really, the film isn't bad; it's just not great—but when this mission was over, this critic was more relieved for himself than he was for any of the story’s characters.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; the “f” word; “s---ting me,” “science the s--- out of this,” “holy s---”; “where the hell?”; a comment about Mark telling others to “have sex with themselves”; “d---punch”; “god--am-”; “a--hole”
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: None
- Sex/Nudity: We see Mark’s bare backside; a kiss
- Violence/Crime: An astronaut is knocked unconscious by flying debris; he pulls out a piece of metal that has pierced his chest and treats his wounds; blood on hand after a wound opens up; explosions
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Mark holds a crucifix and asks forgiveness for using shavings from it to stay alive; a character’s father is said to be Hindu, his mother Baptist
Publication date: October 1, 2015