MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Martian’ Is Good, But Not Great

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who faces seemingly insurmountable odds as he tries to find a way to subsist on a hostile planet.

Film: The Martian
Starring: Matt Damon
Directed by: Ridley Scott

Though it’s nothing like the survival thriller teased in trailers and posters, Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian is enjoyable fall cinema that doesn’t require much thought.

In the middle of an expedition to Mars, a team of scientists finds themselves caught outside in the middle of a strong storm that threatens not only their lives, but also their ability to leave the planet altogether. Panicked, the captain makes a quick decision to flee Mars before the situation gets any worse, but in order to do so she must choose whether or not to leave behind a team member who was carried out of sight by debris. It’s a moment that will dictate the course of the film from that point forward, and as you probably already know she chooses to leave him behind.

To the surprise of everyone, including the astronaut in question, the man left to die on the surface of Mars survives. He awakes long after the storm has passed, and somehow manages to make it indoors before his damaged suit allows too much of the red planet’s atmosphere to penetrate its many protective layers. He cannot send a distress signal because the only communications satellite was destroyed in the storm, so instead he chooses to focus on caring for the injuries he sustained overnight. Once those are handled, his focus shifts to food and water, as the only chance he has lies in finding a way to live until a rescue team can reach him. That is, if he can find a way to tell everyone he isn’t dead.

Matt Damon is the astronaut, or in this case, The Martian. One might imagine that waking to find you’re the only person on a planet that is literally years of travel away from your home might send someone into shock, but Damon’s character has a far stronger constitution than most. He is focused and determined from the very beginning, perhaps to a fault. Scott’s script rarely provides any time at all for Damon to dwell on the hopelessness of his situation, or the loved ones he has left behind on Earth. His character is positive and forward-thinking almost from the moment he awakes following the storm. It makes for an incredibly stunted protagonist, but those wishing more movies focused on action over emotion will be pleased.

In fact, it’s the almost complete lack of depth in character and story that is The Martian’s biggest shortcoming. There is plenty happening throughout the film, from basic survival to establishing communications, planning a rescue, and ultimately embarking on said rescue mission, but it all comes and goes without offering the slightest insight into the minds of the numerous characters. This is all the more surprising when one considers the cast bringing those characters to life. Outside of Damon, The Martian also features Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Donald Glover, but not one of them is given more to do than be a very straightforward, one-dimensional character. One can only assume Scott did this so that he could fit more action into the film’s runtime without delivering a 3-hour final cut, but it comes at the cost of a more rewarding viewing experience.

This is not to say The Martian is not a fun film because it most certainly is. Like Armageddon, it takes what could be a terrifying space adventure and transforms it into an essentially all-ages romp through the galaxy, complete with over-the-top special effects and a soundtrack comprised almost entirely of throwback pop hits (in this case, disco classics). There are moments of tension, as well as a lot of famous people looking concerned, but you rarely get the sense anyone on screen believes Damon will die on Mars. That idea is almost never even mentioned, as if doing so would somehow make the worst case scenario more likely to happen. While I can appreciate people not wanting to acknowledge the potential for failure, the film misses numerous opportunities for added dramatic weight as a result, and in turn the overall experience is less fulfilling than you know it could have been.

The Martian is easily Ridley Scott’s most accessible film to date, but it comes at the cost of the highbrow storytelling the iconic filmmaker has built his brand upon. This movie is so focused on surface-level drama that it’s a surprise the studio didn’t push it out as a summer tentpole because that is exactly how it feels. You know you should care more than you do, but thanks to an endless array of quirky quips and eye-popping 3D you disregard the nagging voice that tells you what you’re watching could (and should) be better. The Martian is good, but not great, so don’t expect to walk away comparing it to Gravity or 2001. Just shut off your mind and have fun.

GRADE: B

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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  • Spire

    Thank you James for validating my own thoughts on the film. I watched a video of the author speak which was more interesting than the film. At one point he said he bought his way out of character development by saying “they’re astronauts”. But to me, astronauts are still human and not devoid of feelings and emotion. I think his approach was a disservice to the characters, especially the protagonist, and ultimately to the story.

  • Berliner

    Spot on James..just came back from watching a late night show, and still reeling from how much of a let down it was..sure, it was fun to watch, but was it good, Nope..

    And what the heck was Cameron thinking by getting the whole crowd, the general pubic to do a song and dance of a cheer at the end..that scene almost made me cringe. Ask any lay person and talk to them about a misson being revamped to get back a stranded astronaut, the only reply, the sane version you would get is “How much is it going to cost us..”..

    Sure, that sounds cynical but the movie could have done without the cheer from the general crowd..moving on, I could list all the stuff that’s wrong with this movie, from the fact it was more commercialized and just did a revamp of earlier mars movies, to the same damned space shuttle model, to a reboot of Gravity.

    The only saving grace, this movie is fun to watch once, but twice,, forget it..IT IS NOWHERE in the same class as “Gravity”, “Prometheus”, “2001” or for that matter, even “Interstellar”..although the last one would be a bit of stretch since interstellar overall is realistic and gritty except at certain parts where it transforms into this movie..

    If you’re into serious space movies, park your brain at the door, do not compare this movie to any other one, and just enjoy the fun..that’s about it. Cameron, you have been a naughty boy..trying to commercial the shit out of this, are ya??