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My dislike of this film puts me in the minority of critics, and I wish that weren’t true. This should be a movie that I adore based on its pedigree. Ridley Scott—who directed “Alien,” one of my favorite films of all time—directs another space epic with a solid cast. But, like in “Prometheus” (Scott’s prequel to “Alien”), the director seems to have lost a step in creating memorable characters with genuine emotional arcs. That being said, the failure could lie more with Drew Goddard’s discordantly comedic adaptation of Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel than Scott’s directing.
In the near future, a team of astronauts are on a Mars mission when a bad storm kicks up on the red planet. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders her crew to leave, but not before botanist and astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and buried beneath the sand. Presuming him dead, the crew takes off without him.
But Mark emerges from the sand and a riveting series of events leads to him finally communicating with NASA again. From here, a talented dramatic cast back on Earth spends an hour and a half joking around in what seems like a completely different movie.
The head of the Mars program on Earth, Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) basically leads the zero-personality version of the “Apollo 13” mission to retrieve Watney. The extensive comical punches rarely land because they don’t match up with the high stakes involved in the mission. Rarely do the earthbound characters—with the exception of Ejiofor—seem terribly worried at all about their marooned astronaut.
The only emotional throughline is Matt Damon’s performance, but even he jokes a little too much for my liking. There’s no reason for the audience to be worried about his eventual rescue because the movie takes such a light tone and he seems to handle each obstacle with relative ease.
Strangely enough, the film even sidelines Watney’s wife. She’s only mentioned in passing, yet we see millions of strangers in Times Square waiting on tenterhooks to know the outcome of the rescue mission.
Then, to add insult to injury, Donald Glover appears as an overtly hip astrophysicist. He makes the discovery that the departing Mars crew can slingshot themselves back to retrieve Watney. His young-punk jocularity is so cloying and overdone that I almost rooted for Jeff Daniels’ wooden NASA leader Teddy Sanders to reject Glover’s idea, even though the science checks out.
While there is room for comedy in a movie like this, a little bit of tension would have been nice. I rarely engage in comparative criticism, but for my money, “Gravity” is a far better version of this sort of story, and “Apollo 13” is a step above that. Those films actually give you a reason to care about their astronauts beyond their being stranded from Earth. In the case of “Apollo 13,” we are even given a wealth of backstory on our mission control characters and the astronauts’ families. You could say this is because they were real people, but it undeniably involves the writing as well.
None of this is to say that the final rescue scene isn’t thrilling or that the movie isn’t well-crafted. The first half-hour is as intellectually and cinematically engaging as anything I’ve seen all year. However, apart from its tensest moments, “The Martian” never fully connects its playful heart and its scientific head.
This review probably won’t stop you from seeing it. And you should see it if you’re set on it. Have a great time. This is one of those where it just doesn’t work for me.
“The Martian” = 2/5
“The Martian” is now playing in theaters nationwide.
(Rated PG-13 for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity)