“Why is it you feel like a dope if you laugh alone, but that’s usually how you end up crying?” — Chuck Palahniuk
Who knew getting stuck on Mars could be so much fun? Ridley Scott and Andy Weir deliver what has to be the most upbeat take on near-certain death ever written. While the story isn’t particularly unique after “Gravity,” “Wall-E,” and “Interstellar,” the reliance on humor as the coping mechanism sets this apart, both for the characters and the audience.
During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return. (Synopsis by Fox)
When you need a sci-fi film set in outer space, you have to go with Ridley Scott. Yet a good portion of the visuals in this film feel like leftover ideas from “Prometheus.” That shouldn’t be surprising since Scott is deep in the middle of his “Aliens” reboot prequels at the moment. Even with “Prometheus” on the mind, Scott delivers here in way that few directors can. The landscapes are gorgeous. The sci-fi tech is incredible. The characters and story are engaging. One of the easy ways to tell if a movie is really good is to judge it on how long it seems. Two hours fly by watching this.
However, the script isn’t without its flaws. Several times Scott fails to follow the old advice of “show, don’t tell.” There is unnecessary dialogue scattered throughout, repeating things that the audience already knows visually. It is sloppy and distracting for a film that otherwise has a tight plot line. The other major problem is the balance of humor with tragedy. For all the times when Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is in major peril, the film never gives the impression that things would truly go wrong for him. In other words, the problems faced didn’t have the impact they should have. That’s partially a pacing issue with the script, but also a tonal issue. Since Watney is so busy quipping about the problems, he rarely gives the impression that he is actually concerned about his mortality. This means that the audience doesn’t ever quite believe that Watney is in danger. The necessary counterbalance to the humor is removed, leaving the audience to chuckle along as Watney gets himself out of more hijinks.
That tendency, unfortunately, is what keeps this from being a really great film instead of a pretty good one. It is hard to argue that some relief from the recent barrage of movies leaning too heavily on tragedy was needed. The pendulum just swung too far here. The moments that work the best are when one of the characters breaks the comedy façade and shows real emotion in the face of adversity. Damon has several of these moments that are both his strongest performances and the script’s most powerful writing moments. Ultimately this is a human story; both for the individual and the people trying to reach him. The most successful parts of this film invoke the true emotions in these groups and how they interplay.
Is it a bad movie? Far from it. It just isn’t a very balanced movie. It is certainly fun and entertaining, even if it is missing that edge it needed at points. It is a film that will make you want to read the book and even get you interested in the idea of colonizing Mars. According to NASA’s latest releases, we are only an estimated fifteen years from sending humans there. Films like this touch our imagination of what could be and get us excited for what the future will be. That is never a bad thing.
THREE AND A HALF out of four stars.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Runtime 2 hr. 14 min.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity.