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USA 2015
Directed by
Ridley Scott
130 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

The Martian

Synopsis: After a manned (and womanned) NASA expedition to Mars is caught in a fierce storm Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders immediate evacuation, leaving behind botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after mistakenly believing him to be dead. How will Mark a) survive and b) get back to Earth when there won’t be another mission for four years.

If you’re not a science geek, a Trekkie or a Moon Walk believer you may have more than a bit of trouble with Ridley Scott’s film which is big on jargon-laden science problems and space travel technology but light on characterisation and narrative engagement.

The film has two main parts between which it moves: on Mars the stranded but impressively-buffed botanist trying to survive; on Earth the NASA people trying to get him back home alive. The former has a certain appeal due to its life-inimical scenario and Damon’s contrasting characteristically cheeky good humour showcased as he helpfully explains to a computer screen (i.e. us) everything that he is doing. The latter is an over-familiar diorama of politicking technocrats facing-off earnest science nerds who bandy around arcane science problems which they then proceed to demonstrate with some physical analogs like paper clips, a shoelace and some Styrofoam cups (I made that combination up, but you get the point I hope) designed to keep the less science--informed (represented by the oddly-cast Kristen Wiig who spends most of the film with a look of startled incomprehension on her face) on game.

The script by Drew Goddard from a novel by Andy Weir is a technically-detailed but dramatically banal affair that mixes the “let’s bring our boy home” stuff on the ground with comic relief from Mark on Mars avowing that he is going to have to “science the shit out of this”, indulging in a running joke about disco music and yelling such things as “in your face, Neil Armstrong” as he near-miraculously works out how to get himself off the Red Planet.

What the film doesn’t have is credible psychological profiling. The story takes place over roughly an eighteen month period but Mark appears completely unaffected by the prolonged and highly unusual isolation (one recalls Bruce Dern’s crazy astronaut botanist in Douglas Trumball’s 1972 film, Silent Running whilst there is a 1964 B grader, Robinson Crusoe on Mars that sounds worth investigating, if only for comedic purposes, but if you want to see a credible version of this sort of thing check out Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away). One scene late in the film is inserted to show considerable weight loss but as it is clearly a stunt double and Damon appears next in his Buzz Lightyear suit bulked up again, it means nothing.  At least there is no pretty wife and cute offspring to work the sentimentality card (on the other hand Mark is effectively a sexless action figure). Rather, the film, which in general plays like a paean to American ingenuity and derring-do (which so impress the Chinese that they declassify a secret space program), is a well-packaged ensemble of adventure yarn types: Jessica Chastain’s female commander; Jeff Daniels’s bureaucratic manager; Sean Bean’s Irish team leader; Michael Peña’s Latino pilot; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Afro-American section chief, Benedict Wong’s Chinese-American science boffin, and so on. Mercifully, there is no accompanying bombastic score although once Abba gets a full volume airing it’s all starting to become tiresomely trivialized.

In recent times there have been a rash of space travel movies: 2013's Gravity; and Elysium; and 2014's Interstellar (Damon appeared in the latter two). None have been more than passable fare, the marvellous SFX of Gravity nothwithstanding (one can here also mention Brian De Palma's rather appealing 2000 mis-fire, Mission To Mars, which Scott and his team have clearly watched closely). The Martian doesn’t change that pattern. It’s OK but particularly with American manned space flights, at least for now, a thing of the past, and despite the attempt in the closing stage to suggest universal concern for Mark's plight, it feels curiously irrelevant. And at 130 minutes it is way too long.




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