Movie Review: The Martian
By Ben Gruchow
October 5, 2015
Kristen Wiig shines here as a public-relations specialist; the actress has a gift for letting a joke come to her and landing it with just the right inflection and timing, and she uses it well with the screentime she has. Meanwhile, we catch up with the crew of the Hermes, which has left Mark behind on Mars to their grief and distress; a conversation by text between Watney and a teammate after the news is broken provides just the right mix of camaraderie and regret.
The Martian must eventually switch gears into the part of its story that deals with a rescue attempt, and this it does satisfactorily. We hit all of the necessary beats, at any rate. Here, though, the seams start to show. Having spent a good amount of time establishing early circumstance with Mark on Mars, the movie must now follow three separate storylines as they careen toward resolution, and it’s really no wonder that each story gets the job done without being fleshed out or nuanced in the same way that the earlier passages did. One gets the sense that Goddard and Scott realized by a certain point that they’d provided all of the character grace notes they reasonably could within a 140-minute runtime, and that a version of The Martian that maintained the book’s attention to detail all the way through would end up running longer than would really be possible for there to be momentum and a cinematically-agreeable structure.
The tone, too, also makes a transition that’s less than what the material deserves: as the clock winds down to the final stages of a bizarre and harrowing rescue expedition, the movie becomes (slightly) more serious, more anxious, more profound. It states these things at different points, authoritatively - but it does not fully earn them, or navigate between the shifts in tone, in the way that the craftiest storytelling does. We have spent so much time with Mark on the surface of Mars, and grown so accustomed to that particular portrayal, that the injection of earnest drama and a more objective and conventional form of risk and stakes isn’t entirely welcome.
The last act of The Martian could have used more sequences like one between Chiwetel Ejiofor’s NASA scientist Kapoor and MacKenzie Floyd’s technician Mindy Park, where they try to guess as to the tone of an exclamatory communication from Watley on Mars. Sequences like this are just as adept at building connective tissue and sinew between the broad character attributes as the sequences from earlier in the film; there are necessarily less of them, but I found myself wondering what a version of The Martian that kept us with Mark on Mars more often, and had the Hermes and Earth drama communicated through electronic communication (which is how he sees it, after all), would have looked like. We would have been deprived of some estimable acting talent, but we would have gotten more of what makes the film work the most, and possibly a more impactful journey by the end.
Still, what we do get is noteworthy and well-made, and it contains a terrific performance by Damon as Mark Watney. The entire edifice falls apart if we don’t have this central figure to latch onto, and Damon makes us believe in the character throughout each new development. We can understand his actions, his reactions both humorous (one such instance, after Kapoor advises him to watch his language due to the public-facing nature of the NASA transcriptions, is one of the movie’s best moments) and dramatic. Watney’s actions toward the end of the film, augmented by makeup and computer effects, carry real weight and catharsis.
Where most big-budget studio films are content to rehash the same adversarial conflicts, hit the same tiring character notes, and bad guys are there because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story worth telling, here is a film that is - like 2013’s Gravity or 1995’s Apollo 13 - secure in being entirely about people working together and with determination to solve a difficult problem on a seemingly-impossible canvas, and succeeds because of that confidence. The Martian is not as good as either of those examples, but it’s a worthy telling of a good story, and that’s not faint praise.