Movie Review: The Martian is a frictionless space adventure

Ridley Scott's new big-budge space adventure has no room to create meaning. It talks and talks and talks but says nothing.

Ridley Scott was the first director I ever loved. Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator; even Legend and Kingdom of Heaven had their charms.

Such devotion makes The Martian particularly disappointing. The Ridley Scott who wanted to keep expository voiceover out of Blade Runner on its initial release became the Ridley Scott who insisted that Deckard is a replicant and reshaped the film to argue his thesis. That’s the guy behind The Martian: a technician, a literalist, a shadow of whatever he used to be.

Starring Matt Damon and a ton of other people, from Chiwetel Ejiofor to Jessica Chastain, The Martian is all tell and no show. Working from a script by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield), Scott dutifully relays the tale of one astronaut stuck on Mars — until he’s not.

If I’m being glib, it’s only because The Martian, based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, is incurably glib.
This problem lies in the source material, to be sure. Reading Weir’s The Martian is truly a slog: The man has a tin ear for dialogue, no handle on psychological depth or scene-setting (there are like 200 words total devoted to Mars herself), and a regrettable propensity for dad jokes. Take a moment to imagine Jimmy Fallon getting stuck on Mars.
But the plot of The Martian is fine; it could have been pared into a tense survival movie. Unfortunately, Goddard’s script takes no chances. It hews close to the book, with one exception: whereas Weir tends to end chapters on cliffhangers and open the next with post hoc exposition of how the issue was resolved (“Shit, the airlock exploded!” “Well, I fixed the airlock!”), Scott’s $100-million blockbuster fills in the blanks, albeit in no particularly interesting fashion.

The film opens with Harry Gregson-Williams’ score over a shot of Mars; the music quotes the immortal, flickering strains of the Alien title sequence. Somehow his work goes from that to sentimental bullshit by the end. The opening sequence, with Matt Damon’s Mark Watney being stranded and presumed dead, is promising inasmuch as it doesn’t obviously stumble (though, again, a bunch of people clambering around in bulky spacesuits draws unflattering parallels to Alien).
Watney awakens in the harsh Martian sun, alive. He immediately has to perform self-surgery to remove a length of antenna from his gut, which mercilessly (stomach stapling, anyone?) satisfies the Ridley Scott Bodily Trauma quotient for the film as a whole. Watney then proceeds to have exactly one night of existential dread over his predicament —stuck in a Mars tent with two months of food and no communications — before getting over it and Pulling Up His Bootstraps. Yes, this is a movie about how hard work can help you achieve anything, even getting off Mars! Crippling fear? That’s for pussies.

We’re subjected to a good 90 minutes of torturous Matt Damon voiceovers explaining in needless detail the things we’re watching him do, sprinkled with dumb jokes (he scandalizes NASA by saying “fuck,” at one point) and resolutely devoid of any emotion. Does this guy have family? Anything he cares about? I couldn’t tell you. It comes off like a big-budget version of How It’s Made; it’s very, very difficult to believe that Ridley Scott couldn’t find a way to tell this story visually. Even J.C. Chandor’s survival-at-sea drama All Is Lost had the good sense to keep its mouth shut.
And then the elephant in the room, Gravity — it doesn’t come close to the weapons-grade intensity of Alfonso Cuaron’s until late in the film. That sequence is exciting, and the standout setpiece from the film, but it also feels reined-in, safe.

Now you might point out that Sandra Bullock does a lot of talking in Gravity, and you’d be right. But Gravity knows exactly what it wants to be: it is in form and content a story of one person coming up against the indifference of the universe and, improbably, surviving. Its themes are naked and emotionally resonant, supported by every aspect of the thing. It may be brutally manipulative — I was physically shaken, drained by the experience — but it’s effective.

The Martian has no room to create meaning. It talks and talks and talks (this is the kind of movie where people read every word they’re typing out, and each new room in a NASA building gets its own on-screen subtitle) but says nothing. Every stylistic detour Scott takes is as obvious as can be: that David Bowie’s “Starman” is used in its entirety counts as restraint only because it’s not “Life On Mars?”

Among other things, a Lord of the Rings joke is laboriously explained because Kristen Wiig’s character exists to have things explained to her, and by extension, us dummies in the audience.

It’s tough to imagine Ridley Scott summoning the gonzo style of his brother Tony’s late-period films like Domino or Deja Vu at this point in his career. He’s wormed into a rut: big space vistas, stupid scripts, workmanlike chops. He does what he does, and what he does is simply film the things other people write, with minimal flair. His shots are always vivid and occasionally interesting, but they signify little. The ruthlessness of his early work, both in execution and production, has sagged into a middlebrow, crowdpleasing routine.

This isn’t to say The Martian should’ve been two hours of Matt Damon in a deep depression before freezing to death. But the choices it makes throughout don’t add up to much, least of all suspense. It’s never remotely possible that Damon will die, because he knows everything and can solve anything. For survival (and, y’know … drama) to be gripping, there needs to be the possibility of failure. Of death. Otherwise, you’re just watching a guy farm potatoes in a soil-shit mixture until his friends pick him up. That it happens to be on Mars is, in the end, nearly irrelevant. 

Put another way: Ridley Scott used to work with cutting-edge people. He had ironclad taste in collaborators during his heyday. Now he’s working from Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof scripts. A technician is only as good as the tools he’s given.


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