What if all astronauts were sexy redheads or lovable, wise-cracking goofballs? That’s the question posed by Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which takes all the least challenging parts of Gravity and Interstellar and cuts them into one long rah-rah sizzle reel for NASA (no shame in that game, “bring back NASA” is a perfectly admirable goal).
We’d all like to see ourselves as hilarious geniuses, quipping in the face of death, boldly facing the unknown, able to improvise our way out of any problem, and curiously devoid of unsightly body hair, no matter how many months we’ve spent stranded on an alien planet without a razor. The Martian is an unabashed attempt to fulfill that wish. And who better to play a glib genius than Matt Damon? It’s a fine, breezy watch, only occasionally groanworthy, and the deepest thought I had on the way out was whether it should be called “Sasstronauts” or “Good Will Spacing.”
Matt Damon, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, and Jessi Chastain (Zero Mars Thirty?) play the Mars exploration crew, who in the first scene get hit by a freak storm. Matt Damon gets bonked by some space stuff, and his suit’s alive-detection thingamajig gets merc’d. Presuming him dead, they tearfully f*ck off back to Earth (“I’ll miss that hilarious hairless son of a bitch,” they probably thought) leaving him to fend for himself for the forseeable future, without so much as a saucy robot to keep him company.
The situation is dire. It will take four years for a rescue or supply mission to reach him, and he only has enough food for a month. And that’s assuming no more freak storms (a threat that curiously vanishes after the first ten minutes of the movie). Luckily, Damon’s character is a sh*t-hot botanist who could grow potatoes in your mom if he wanted to, capable of MacGyvering up a greenhouse using nothing but sports bras and spent condoms. Every time he conquers a new challenge, he brags about it to the camera like Tom Hanks making fire in Castaway. You go, Matt Damon! Make space your bitch!
It’s essentially two hours of:
“Houston, we have a problem…”
“Actually, it’s worse than that. In fact, here is a power point presentation I made about how all hope is lost and we’re all definitely doomed.”
(*grave faces all around, close-up of Jeff Daniels looking constipated*)
“So… I guess it’s settled then.”
(*guy in the back of the room raises his hand*)
“Quirky Young Maverick, how the hell did you get in here? I thought we fired you months ago for skateboarding in the beaker room. (*presses button*) Security!”
“Hold on, sir, let’s hear him out. I… I think we owe it to Matt Damon, sir.”
“God dammit, Jenkins, I hate when you’re right. Maverick, spit it out. You’ve got two minutes before Matt Damon’s chest hair grows out, so make it snappy.”
(*pulls down hoodie*) “…Thank you, sir. Sir, I was thinking… what if… what if we reversed the polarity? Here, I’ve created a diagram out of Playstation controllers and my collection of Star Wars figurines.”
“Well I’ll be damned.”
“SIR, DON’T LISTEN TO HIM! THIS IS INSANE! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” (*gets slapped out of hysterics by colleague*)
“…It’s crazy, but it just might work.”
(*triumphant montage set to ABBA*)
This isn’t a criticism, by the way. There’s something infinitely cathartic about a clever person using ingenuity to solve a formerly intractable problem, provided it’s lucidly explained, and they don’t cheat overmuch in the solution. The Martian is strong on all these points, and in fact it really only runs into trouble when it’s not being glib and breezy.
Much is made of NASA honcho Jeff Daniels’ initial decision not to tell the crew that Matt Damon is alive on their long journey back to Earth. I guess Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard (or maybe it was in the book, I don’t know) figured the vastness of space and a planet inherently hostile to all life weren’t enough of a challenge and had to throw in a “tight-assed, image-conscious functionary” character for good measure. Many tense boardroom meetings ensue over whether to tell the crew about Matt Damon, and honestly WHOOOOOO CAAAAAAARES. There’s a dude on Mars growing potatoes in his own sh*t and a whole crew of sexy physicists on Earth trying to get him home (one of whom is named “Mindy Park,” who is, hilariously, a blonde white girl, played by Mackenzie Davis and her perfect lips, of Halt And Catch Fire fame). Do we really have 25 minutes to spend pretending to care about the crew’s feewings?
I guess they needed a reason for Jessica Chastain to scowl and tear up, and become fiercely determined and eventually triumph. I don’t know if she takes herself way too seriously in real life, but every single one of her characters does.
There’s also a running joke about Matt Damon’s character having to suffer Jessica Chastain’s character’s awful taste in music (she loves disco, lol!). It’s one of The Martian’s most shoehorned-feeling bits in a movie that’s otherwise shockingly successful at incorporating light moments into a survival story without it feeling phony. And I suppose it excuses Ridley Scott for setting a montage to “Waterloo” by ABBA, but it doesn’t excuse him using “Love Train” over an end-credits montage, which is one of the worst musical choices I’ve seen in ten years. Jesus, man, you know that’s a f*cking Coors Light commercial, right? All in all, The Martian has the most nauseatingly on-the-nose musical selections since Flight. Yes, there’s Bowie in it, and not even “Life On Mars.”
The Martian is, for the most part, syrupy cinematic pop that only occasionally edges into saccharine, but there’s one scene — a space dance that’s overtly similar to Gravity, but a symbolic cousin to the trash compactor scene in Toy Story 3 — that actually makes you feel as well as smile. It’s not even close to original, but it’s universal, and beautifully done, which is probably more important. Sort of The Martian in a nutshell. It’s not great, but it’s likable.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.