“The Martian” is based on the bestselling novel and stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left behind on Mars after his team must perform an emergency evacuation. He must then both find a way to grow food and contact Earth before it is too late. Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor highlight an all-star cast as Ripley Scott directs.
It seems to be a trend in the past few years to release a movie about surviving in space during the autumn season. 2013 gave us “Gravity,” and last year we had “Interstellar,” two very good movies that tinkered on great. Unfortunately “The Martian” does not continue that trend, as it a movie that is just OK, featuring flashes of what it could have been.
Like I said in the opening line, this is better than “Exodus,” and in fact may be Ripley Scott’s best film since 2003’s “Matchstick Men” (quick plug: see that if you haven’t). But the bar isn’t set very high for Scott, and many of the same problems that plagued his recent films like “Exodus” and “Prometheus,” like overstuffed plots and poor pacing, are front stage here.
“Martian” is 2 hours 20 minutes and you feel most every moment of that. I checked my phone one time expecting the film to be approaching the climax, and it was only 90 minutes in. Much of the film plays out in a rinse and repeat pattern: Damon needs to solve a problem, he solves it rather quickly, and a new problem then arises. Meanwhile the suits back at NASA argue on how to go about performing the rescue mission, which normally ends without much conflict.
The most interesting points of the film aren’t even featuring Damon trying to survive on the distant planet, it’s back on Earth where space experts Donald Glover, Ejiofor and Sean Bean all try and figure out problems and debate the best solutions. These moments are the most engaging but often end too quickly, instead sending us back to Damon who is eating potatoes for the 300th straight day.
What the film does do well, however, is establish the characters. We don’t really know about Watney before the accident (he gets left behind in the first 10 minutes of the film), so Damon’s video logs give us a feel for the character. He is a calm, down-to-earth (well, figuratively, not literally) guy who even though he just awoke 140 million miles from home with a needle plunged into his chest, still manages to crack a joke. The film itself is pretty funny, which makes sense when you have career comedians Glover, Daniels and Kristen Wiig as part of your cast.
I really wanted to like “The Martian” more than I did, but for every gorgeous shot of Mars’ desert terrain or each scene of Damon making a breakthrough, there are two or three slow scenes that add nothing but exposition to the already hefty plot. It is far from a bad film, but it is certainly one of the bigger disappointments of 2015, and kicks the Oscar movie season off with a whimper.
Critics Rating: 5/10