Based on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, The Martian (2015) proves that with some Hollywood blockbusters, even when you have no expectations you’ll get exactly what you expect. Which isn’t to say it’s a failure: on the contrary, it’s a skillfully made entertainment with a refreshing agenda. But there’s something highly conventional and unsurprising about it.
Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is peacefully collecting samples during a scientific expedition on Mars when a massive duststorm threatens his team. Struck by debris, Watney is knocked out and left for dead. When he wakes up, his team has evacuated, and he comes up against the cold equations of his plight: that, in all likelihood, he will die on Mars before a rescue mission can save him…unless scientific ingenuity and perserverance can save him.
With Damon’s charisma, Ridley Scott’s sure directorial hand, and Drew Goddard’s amusing script leading the way, The Martian delivers a thoroughly engaging story full of stirring moments, sly wit, high drama, and riveting disasters. Watney’s dire situation on Mars eventually alternates with the efforts of the NASA team, and others, to save him. While this second thread overuses Jeff Daniels and underuses Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig, it generally provides an entertaining counterpoint to Watney’s lonely scenario. Between the two threads, the film’s refreshingly pro-science, pro-cooperation message plays out. It’s a rare science fiction film without a villain, while its many heroes display a winning mix of courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity.
Why then did I leave the theater feeling flat? Perhaps the film’s survival-story arc doesn’t leave enough room for the unpredictable. On a broad, structural level it’s so similar to Gravity I felt I had already seen it. And while the story’s message is uplifting, it also plays into Hollywood convention so neatly I felt I was watching rigorously screen-tested and approved product.
By and large, it’s an enjoyable viewing experience, especially for its sweeping Martian vistas, rousing teamwork, cleverly detailed plot conundrums, and pro-science themes. But for me it just lacked that certain something.