Directed by Ridley Scott.
2015. Rated PG-13, 141 minutes.
The crew of the Ares III is working on the surface of Mars when a severe dust storm causes them to abort their mission and leave the planet, altogether. During their evacuation, things get so rough Mark Watney (Damon) is separated from his team and presumed dead. After the storm, they are well on their way home to Earth while Watney wakes to find himself all alone on Mars. He has to establish communications with NASA and figure out how to survive until they can get someone back to rescue him. Meanwhile, the people of NASA try to figure out if/how they can get back to him before he succumbs to an unforgiving planet.
Wisely, The Martian hitches its spaceship to star Matt Damon who is more affable than he's ever been. Watney is just an all-around likable guy. He's good-natured about his predicament and takes things in stride, for the most part. Despite the fact he's a botanist worthy of being sent on an interplanetary mission by NASA, he's very relatable. His "regular guy" vibe is a great aid in that area. It's also helpful that the script calls for him to explain everything he's doing every step of the way. That would fail, if not for Damon. He delivers every line of dialogue as if he's speaking to a friend. Nothing goes over our head, yet it never feels like he's talking down to us.
There are times when we are talked down to, but even that is handled with humor. Most notably, Donald Glover in a small but significant role has to explain his theory for rescuing Watney to Theodore Sanders (Daniels), the head of NASA. If the head of NASA needs something explained, we're okay with it sounding juvenile. It's a fun little turn in a film that has a number of them. Chiwetel Ejiofor does the heavy lifting here on Earth. He does an excellent job of conveying his character's frustrations when things don't go right. Jeff Daniels is stuck with a stock role, but he makes the most of it. The one big flaw, cast-wise, is the complete waste of Kristen Wiig. She has nothing to do but stand around with a pensive look on her face.
Wiig's seriousness and the nervousness of her character are oddly out of place in a film where more people should behave the same way. This serves to highlight what's missing from The Martian. We get that this is a life or death situation and the chances are slim that Watney will be rescued. Thanks to the happy-go-lucky tone of the film as a whole, and our main character, specifically, we never really feel it. The movie is something we can sit back and enjoy, but it seldomly draws us to the edge of our seats. I really only count one instance, for a few minutes, during the actual rescue scene. The other two hours play out like the lighthearted cousin of Gravity. Everything about that film is intense, urgent, and harrowing. This one is laid back, patient, and somewhat interesting. That doesn't make The Martian a bad movie. It's just one that jovially skips along it's path, winking and grinning all the way. It practically refuses to tap into the same universal fear of isolation that makes Gravity soar.
The timeline of our story almost dictates The Martian take this meandering approach. We're told pretty early the soonest someone can get to Mars is nearly two years from the time people on Earth find out our hero is still alive. While NASA tries to figure ways to knock as many days off their expected arrival date as possible, Watney has to try adding days on to the expected life of his supplies. We get lots of trial and error. This is fine, except for most of the film we understand errors always come with a second chance. The stakes never seem as high as they should.
If it seems I'm bashing the film, I don't meant to. I really enjoyed watching it. I just couldn't love it since I was looking for much more than it gave it me. It's a film that begged to be a tension filled affair, one that jangled our nerves as the fate of our hero hangs in the balance. I recall a quote from the legendary poet Emily Dickinson. She said "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." I am looking for the same thing in movies. The ones giving me that feeling are the ones I cherish. A fun and funny ride, The Martian may be, but it never takes off the top of my head.