MARK WATNEY (MATT Damon) is one of a team of scientists doing pretty boring routine research work on the planet Mars (sometime in the near future) when disaster strikes. A howling Martian storm threatens the stability of their aircraft and Watney is slammed by a piece of debris and swept away into the darkness. Believing that he’s dead and fearing for their own safety, the ship’s captain (Jessica Chastain) makes the call…and leaves him behind.
Of course he’s not dead; he simply has a piece of antennae sticking out of his stomach. Watney drags himself back to base camp, repairs himself and begins the yawningly long process of fighting to survive for the next few years until help can reach him. He’s a very clever botanist. Call him MacGyver on Mars. He wraps the inside of his Martian habitat with plastic (who knows spacecrafts carried so much plastic with them. You learn something new every day), manages to manufacture water, uses his own carefully packaged feces and Martian dirt to grow potatoes, rigs up a contraption to get a message back to earth and fights off loneliness and despair by complaining about the disco song selection left behind by the captain.
Meanwhile, back on earth, crew captain Mitch (Sean Bean) and lead scientist Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must battle the PR conscious head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) about funding a search and rescue for Watney. No matter how fast they act, they won’t get to him in under two years.
But this is no Castaway talking to a football for company (or Robert Redford for that matter, not talking at all, in that wonderful survivor movie, “All is Lost”). Redford and Tom Hanks really invited us into their minds as they desperately battled to stay alive, batted to stay sane on an empty island. But Director Ridley Scott isn’t really interested in the mind twisting, psyche damaging madness of being stranded on a distant planet with, realistically, no means of escape. He’s more interested in showing how awfully clever and gung-ho his wise-ass astronaut botanist is. He remains ever chirpy in the face of disaster.
It’s probably Matt Damon’s most one-dimensional role…proving, I guess, that there really IS no life on Mars.
But let’s not judge “The Martian” on criteria that it wasn’t meant to be judged by. This is no ponderous “Prometheus” or pretentious “Interstellar”. “The Martian” is simply a good natured, late summer adventure blockbuster. It certainly has all the elements to offer a decent surge of blockbuster adrenaline: brilliant visuals, howling gales, people floating in space tethered delicately to rotating spacecraft, an “Apollo 13” type gang of braniacs trying to fix things from earth, Jason Bourne himself showing of his pecs and a climatic denoument set in the limitless darkness of the void.
And all as dull as dishwater.
Ridley Scott…the brilliant Ridley Scott, the man who gave us “Gladiator”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Blade Runner” and “Alien” seems to be settling into an ouvre where pomp and circumstance (“Exodus: Gods and Kings” was his latest production) are replacing thrilling stories with engaging characters.
For pomp and circumstance there certainly is much of: the production design (by his go-to designer, Arthur Max) is impressively credible (apparently all NASA approved) and editor Pietro Scalia (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) stitches together the elements to squeeze every ounce of life out of the story.
It’s just that “Thunderbirds Are Go”, that old puppet series on TV had a better script and more interesting characters than “The Martian”, where unfortunately, even actors of the caliber of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Peña remain cardboard cut outs mouthing spacecraft mumbo jumbo.
Ah well, at least in space, no one can hear you shout