Magazine November 2, 2015, Issue

No Direction Home

Matt Damon in The Martian (Aidan Monaghan/TM & 2015 Twentieth Century Fox)

This will be a dissent, though not a particularly angry one. Just about everyone seems to love The Martian, Ridley Scott’s new film about an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, and there is, indeed, a great deal to enjoy about it. But it’s also somewhat overpraised; it starts very strong, but in a reversal of the usual way of this kind of lost-in-space movie, it actually loses energy and interest as our hero’s deliverance approaches.

We begin in the middle of a Mars mission, with the astronauts already safely landed on the Martian surface, bantering as they excavate red dirt around their spacecraft. Then, suddenly, a dust storm looms, there’s a scramble for the rocket, and one of the party — Mark Watney, the botanist, played by Matt Damon — gets hit by a flying piece of equipment and carried off into the darkness. The rest of the crew can’t find him, the ship has to take off, and after it leaps to safety we see the head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) informing a crowd of journalists that Watney didn’t make it, that he died on Mars.

Except that he didn’t: He’s alive, marooned, with enough life support and food to last maybe six months, no way to communicate with Earth, and the prospect of a four-year wait until the next manned mission is scheduled to arrive. In the harshest environment imaginable, he has to figure out a way to stay alive.

This is the setup, the first 20 minutes, and for a while afterward the movie crackles. Damon’s Watney declines to stare into the abyss; instead, he cracks wise to his video diary, winks and mugs and generally maintains a buoyant (if slightly rueful) optimism. And then he sets out, Tom Swift–style, to “science” his way to survival, whether that means using his fellow astronauts’ excretions to fertilize a potato crop or literally conjuring water out of thin air (and burning hydrogen).

Back on Earth, meanwhile, NASA finally figures out that he’s survived, at which point a team of bureaucrats and nerds — Daniels as the heavy, Kristen Wiig as his PR rep, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, and Sean Bean as various scientists and space whisperers — has to figure out how to communicate with him, how to ship him more supplies, and how to break the news to his shipmates (who are now headed for Earth) that when they left him for dead, he was actually still kicking. And it doesn’t give much away, I hope, to reveal that when those shipmates — led by Jessica Chastain’s captain, with Michael Peña and Kate Mara among her crew — finally find out what’s going on, they have their own ideas about going back to get him.

Those ideas should set the movie up for a rousing, moving finish; it’s a variation on the Apollo 13 and Gravity narrative, and those are films whose finales never fail to put a lump in your (or at least my) throat. But The Martian spends its first hour working hard not to be those movies: refusing to play up the pathos, making Watney’s resourcefulness the main story, declining to give him either a tragic backstory or a wife or family waiting back on Earth. Which is fine, excellent even, while Watney’s mostly by himself — it’s nice to see a movie about space flight that isn’t just about getting safely home — but then when it comes time for the rescue plan, the obstacles and solutions become too predictable, and the movie goes to the well of deep emotion and finds it mostly empty.

The biggest problem here is the crew. The characters back on Earth don’t quite have the lived-in feel of the Mission Control types in Apollo 13; Daniels’s waspish bad cop is the only one who feels completely true to life. But they at least have a lot to argue about and do, and so their scenes have energy and verve. Watney’s crewmates, though, have only the barest hints of backstory, and while we’re constantly told how they feel about their lost comrade, none of them — and these are fine actors — comes close to expressing anything beyond generic angst and bland nobility. (It doesn’t help that there are so many of them.) Again, the comparison with Apollo 13, in which Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon inhabited deeply recognizable human beings alongside Tom Hanks’s Hanksian Jim Lovell, leaves this crew of astronauts seeming smooth, generic, empty.

Which is a problem, because it’s the crew that has to help carry the film’s climax, when lives will be risked and knotty space-math puzzles solved while crowds wait in Times Square to hear whether our heroes will be coming home. These scenes are . . . fine, but they don’t have nearly the power they should. Instead of a culmination, they feel like an all-too-predictable finish to a movie that was much more interesting when Damon was all by himself, counting days and potatoes with red wastelands all around.

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