“The Martian” is a confused and ultimately mediocre film. Whilst it isn’t ‘bad’ by any stretch of the imagination, it never manages to elevate itself above being an average film with a good premise, to a great movie that goes above and beyond its initial idea.
The film is about Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut left stranded on Mars after he’s hit by debris during a serious storm. His team left him behind because they presumed that he was dead, given that he wasn’t responding to their calls and his body wasn’t visible in the darkness of the storm. After waking up alone and assessing the situation, Watney comes up with a plan to make life sustainable on the alien planet, using his botanist skills to create an artificial habitat in which to grow plant life. The film focuses on Watney as he attempts to make the best of his situation, but when he isn’t on screen we watch NASA as they do what they can to rescue him.
The most surprising thing about “The Martian” is its sense of humour. The film constantly uses comedy to create a connection between the audience and Watney, and whilst the jokes do hit every now and again, the comedy meant that the tone was unclear and left Damon a bit short. Damon played a man staying positive in the face of adversity, so he made light of the crazy situation he was in, but that shouldn’t have been his entire character. It would’ve been possible to keep some of the jokes (which got old by the end) whilst also giving Damon the chance to portray the darker side of Watney’s isolation. He didn’t have any direct human contact for a substantial period of time, so I would’ve liked to see how this changed his personality, no matter how jovial a person he may have been before.
The personality that Watney was afforded was most often portrayed through the use of a video log, which Watney used to keep track of his day-to-day life on Mars. This video diary made the audience chuckle, as Watney said such lines as – ‘I’m going to have to science the shit out of this’ – but it was also painfully obvious that its place in the film was to provide exposition.
The video diary was used to inform the audience of many things, including Watney’s profession and the way that water can be artificially created; this was an intelligent way to put across important information, but when you realise what’s happening the diaries become quite annoying. I would’ve preferred if the film went one way or the other, putting across information subtly through items just in shot, or having Watney break the fourth wall and telling the audience everything directly. Either of these methods would’ve been less jarring than the use of the video diaries, and the latter would’ve still allowed for comedic moments.
Whilst Damon was decent in the film and had a lot of screen time, the ensemble cast wasn’t properly utilised in my opinion. Sean Bean had no place in the film and Kate Mara was completely wasted as her character was underdeveloped. Furthermore, in a film so focused on making its audience laugh, Kristen Wiig was pushed into the background, not once delivering a funny line. She’s one of the best comedy actresses in the world yet she never got the chance to show it.
I can’t help but feel like these small roles were meant for lesser-known actors who could adequately deliver their lines and then back off, so I have to wonder why Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, and Jessica Chastain were cast at all. Rather than enhancing the quality of the film, their presence distracted me, given that they weren’t fully-formed characters and they are so recognisable. I feel like these great actors wanted to work with Ridley Scott, so they turned up on set for a few quick days of filming.
Overall, “The Martian” is an okay film, but it never quite reaches the level of quality that it aspires to. Ridley Scott is capable of making a spectacular movie, and the cast is amazing on paper, but sadly the end product just doesn’t make the grade. It drags on quite a bit and to say that Watney is on a volatile planet not congenial to human survival, he really doesn’t struggle as much as he should. Maybe he’s just that smart, but we have no idea what his background is or what his specific role was on the mission, so we can’t make that assessment. “The Martian” isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing particularly special about it, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.