The Martian review: So-so sci-fi flick with a Matt finish
Ridley Scott's spaced out tale about an astronaut stranded on Mars is easy on the eye but unchallenging, writes Andrew Johnston
It has been good and bad timing for Ridley Scott's lavish adaptation of Andy Weir's 2011 novel, The Martian, about an astronaut stranded on Mars. The weeks running up to the movie's release have heralded the discovery of water on the "Red Planet", but have also seen star Matt Damon put his foot in his mouth with ill-advised - though apparently innocent and misconstrued - remarks about ethnic minorities and homosexuals.
Still, all publicity is good publicity, and certainly, the latest epic from uber-director Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) is tipped to be a huge hit. Quite why, though, is more of a mystery than whether there really is life on Mars.
For a mainstream science-fiction flick, The Martian is bizarrely light on action, it has some of the clumsiest dialogue of any recent blockbuster and Damon's Mark Watney is such a shallow and unlikeable character, you begin to wonder if his fellow space explorers abandoned the cocky botanist on purpose.
Frustratingly, the basic concept is promising. When Watney is left for dead after a disastrous exploratory outing to Mars, he has to fight for survival in the harsh environment. Eventually, NASA discover he is still alive, and ever more risky and elaborate rescue attempts are mounted.
But hey, it's Matt Damon up there, so to hell with the expense, the potential dangers and even the possibility that Watney's erstwhile shuttle crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena and Kate Mara) might not agree to another two years away from their families.
At no point do we feel Watney is in peril, because at no point in his puffed-up performance does Damon portray fear, panic or any sort of psychological conflict. Even after several hundred 'sols' (sci-fi speak for days), he remains sarcastic and upbeat, as he records a series of video blogs detailing his experience. Heck, until the film's final act, he's even meticulously free of facial hair.
As mock YouTube instructional videos on how to grow potatoes using human waste, transform rocket fuel into water or repair spacesuits using duct tape, The Martian may have had some value. But as big-screen entertainment, it offers little more than 130 buttock-torturing minutes of rambling exposition, embarrassing attempts at humour and cloying close-ups of a gym-toned Damon.
If Scott or screenwriter Drew Goddard had the courage to seriously explore the emotions that might engulf a man facing four years isolated on an alien planet, The Martian could have been a worthy companion piece to the brilliant, Sam Rockwell-starring Moon. But Damon is far too famous a name to play someone audiences could be in any doubt would not just survive, but thrive, alone and injured on Mars (To be fair, Weir's book is similarly devoid of existentialism).
Meanwhile, actors of the calibre of Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean are called upon to do little more than totter around in tight dresses, bark orders at underlings and punch the air in front of NASA monitor screens, respectively. It's a shame to see such a stellar cast squandered like this.
On the plus side, the production values, typically, for a Scott picture, are impeccable. Whether during the spacecraft-bound scenes or on the surface of Mars, The Martian looks amazing. Wadi Rum, in Jordan, was again used as a practical shooting location, as it had been for Mission to Mars, Red Planet and The Last Days on Mars, and it proves as visually spectacular as ever.
Alas, being easy on the eye isn't enough to sustain a two-hour movie, and never mind water on Mars; with Damon at the helm, The Martian is just wet.