I’m a few weeks late in reviewing The Martian, largely because I was on vacation when it was first released. When I finally did see The Martian, it was at the wonderful UEC theater in beautiful Russellville, Arkansas. As opposed to my experience when I saw The Green Inferno, the theater was packed and, throughout the entire movie, it was obvious that the audience absolutely loved what they were seeing on screen. They laughed, they applauded, and it was obvious they had a great time with the movie.
And why not? After the commercial failures of both The Counselor and Exodus, it’s obvious that director Ridley Scott was not going to take any chances with The Martian. There’s not a single scene that is not specifically calculated to keep the viewer as complacently satisfied as possible. Telling the story of how botanist Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars and must figure out a way to survive until he can be rescued, The Martian is such a positive film that its total lack of cynicism almost gets overwhelming. The end result is a film that is a 100 times better than Exodus but never as interesting or challenging as The Counselor.
In fact, as I watched The Martian, I kept thinking about another film about a man stranded out in the middle of nowhere, Into The Wild. The main character in Into The Wild spent his isolation contemplating the meaning of life and finally reaching some sort of spiritual peace before starving to death. Mark Whatney, on the other hand, spends his isolation recording a snarky video diary and listening to classic disco songs.
And, before anyone gets offended or accuses me of being a film snob, allow me to say that I enjoyed The Martian. I thought it was an entertaining movie and I especially loved the soundtrack. But, at the same time, one can enjoy The Martian and still acknowledge that there’s not much going on underneath the crowd-pleasing surface.
Looking back on the film, I find it remarkable just how little we learn about Mark Whatney. We hear at one point that he has a family but we really don’t learn anything about his life on Earth. In a way, he’s a bit like Robert Redford in All Is Lost. Except, of course, Mark Whatney talks. He talks a lot. Fortunately, Mark is played by Matt Damon, who is a great talker. If I think that The Martian is entertaining but also a bit overrated (and I do), I also think that Matt Damon deserves every bit of praise that he’s received for his performance.
Interestingly enough, The Martian not only features Matt Damon’s best performance but it also features Jessica Chastain’s worst. Chastain plays Commander Lewis, who is in charge of the Mars expedition and who take it upon herself to bring Mark Whatney home. And really, this should have been a great role for Jessica Chastain but, for the first time that I can remember, she gives a performance that just isn’t that interesting.
Then again, there’s really only one interesting character in the entire film and that’s Mark Whatney (though I would have liked to learn more about the astronomer played by Donald Glover, who gives an appealingly eccentric performance). This is Matt Damon’s film and it’s best moments are the ones where Mark deals with life on Mars. In fact, there’s a part of me that almost wishes the majority of the NASA scenes had been left on the editing room floor and almost the entire movie had just been Matt Damon on Mars.
In the end, I did enjoy The Martian. It’s a good film that some people are insisting was great. (Of course, a lot of that is because it’s trendy to be into science. Fortunately, Mark Whatney isn’t as much of a pompous blowhard as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, nor is he as creepy as Bill Nye.) Some people are even suggesting that The Martian is the new Oscar front runner and maybe it is. (After all, it’s not like there was much going on below the surface of Birdman either.)
But for me, in the years to come, the main thing I’ll remember about The Martian is the totally kickass soundtrack…