The Martian review: 'It’s the nearest we'll get to feeling like we’ve lived on Mars for an eternity - and that’s not saying a lot'
Is there life on Mars? Perhaps, but what we do know is that there’s certainly water.
No Hollywood studio in the world could choreograph a publicity stunt quite like it: on the opening week of The Martian, NASA discovers that there is indeed life-giving water on Mars. High fives all round, and the marketing department can take a well-deserved break.
But to be fair, The Martian sorely needed a publicity boost like this; without it, the film was careening its way towards a much sorrier fate.
The story goes as follows: after being left for dead on Mars by his comrades after a mission goes a bit awry, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) finds himself living on Mars, alone and with a finite supply of food.
As luck would have it, Watney is a botanist, and as he reminds himself and us after growing a crop of potatoes on the hostile Martian terrain, the finest botanist on the planet.
Meanwhile, the boffins down at NASA’s headquarters in Texas — and by god, are they boffins — have realised the crews’ mistake, and are on a mission to save their guy.
The main problem? It takes about four years to reach the planet from Texas. It’s all highly reminiscent of the Tom Hanks vehicle Cast Away, in which a man was left to his own devices, presumed dead, on a remote island.
So far, so intriguing, and with Ridley Scott in the director’s chair, a rollicking good time is all but guaranteed, right? Eh, wrong.
Certainly, The Martian looks lavish, as one might expect from Scott, who is the grand don of sci-fi. And while there’s no arguing with Damon’s movie-star credentials, he doesn’t carry the film in quite the same way as Tom Hanks did with Cast Away.
Watney is the fulcrum of the film, and sadly, the writers of The Martian (Drew Goddard and Andy Weir) haven’t fleshed out the character of Watney fully enough for us to be stuck with him for much of the movie.
Certainly, he comes out with some witty one-liners to his video log (“potatoes with Vicodin for dinner. I ran out of ketchup this week”), but there’s no backstory, no interiority, and no look at the psychological ramifications of being alone in space for months on end.
He grows a beard and drops a few pounds; other than that, it seems as though Watney might be perfectly content to spend eternity in the ether once he had grub.
There’s plenty of scrimping, too, when it comes to using his comrades (played by a stellar list, among them Jessica Chastain and Rooney Mara).
They’re all criminally underplayed and under-explored: Chastain’s character Lewis likes disco music, and that’s as far as we get with her. That there’s no sniff of a love interest or a family for Watney is a nicely skewed cliché, but this would have helped to get some meat on this otherwise paltry tale. Similarly, any efforts at tension, like Watney’s spuds coming a cropper, come to very little.
What we do get is a lot of science; in fact, we’re clobbered about the head with quantum physics and other technological jargon, constantly. Everyone sounds very clever and committed to their work… it’s just such a shame they’re all so boring.
If you’re a sci-fi nerd, there is plenty to like in The Martian. As Watney says, he will survive his time on Mars if he can ‘science the sh** out of this’. Sadly, you’ll feel every bit as scienced out.
It’s the nearest most of us will get to feeling like we’ve lived on Mars for an eternity. And that’s not saying a lot.
Now read Paul Whitington's 4* review: The Martian movie review: 'Ridley Scott's epic is a story of survival, ingenuity and indomitability of spirit - timely and thrilling'
Also more of this week's reviews: Movie reviews: Macbeth, The Walk, The Intern, By Our Selves