"The Martian" Is Handsome, Hollow Sci-Fi

Science is neat, and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is here to tell you just how neat it is. For 140 minutes. (Spoiler: it’s really, really neat.)

Based on Andy Weir’s homonymous novel, the film begins as an exercise in obviousness – the opening scene is utterly perfunctory – and hangs there for the next two hours, mistaking problem solving for plot, names for characters, and feel-goodisms for emotion. It’s a movie brimming with name actors who are barely in it and variations on the same lame joke (disco music is funny because it’s bad), all while writer Drew Goddard plainly cribs from “Apollo 13” and “Cast Away” without being half as engaging as either.

Matt Damon – never a go-to for “likable leading man” roles – stars in a part that requires him to be really likable. He’s the least of the film’s problems.

When botanist-spaceman Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after his expedition encounters a brutal dust storm, he’s forced to rely on smarts to survive the years it’ll take for a rescue operation to reach him. The character, although one-dimensional, gives us a rooting interest even if it’s the most basic kind. Damon spends 60% of the film talking to himself and working his way through problems that aren’t nearly as mind-boggling as the screenplay seems to think they are. Grow and ration food. Re-establish communication with NASA. Don’t die. Damon is occasionally icier than what the role calls for, but he’s mostly fine.

It’s nearly every other category where the film falls on its face, giving its exceptionally gifted earthbound supporting cast (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover) next to nothing to do and dealing its other astronauts (Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara) even less. Damon churning astronaut poop is more stimulating than the totality of what his co-stars get to do, which includes a few vaguely villainous (but not really) monologues from Daniels’ NASA boss and some clichéd aha moments from Glover’s excitable astronomer.

If you thought Jessica Chastain was misused in last year’s Matt Damon astronaut movie – the infinitely superior “Interstellar” – here she’s reduced even further to loyal NASA Commander with unhip taste in music. It’s a nothing part that’s beneath the performer, much like every other non-Damon character in the film.

But the most mangled element of all might be the soundtrack, which turns David Bowie’s sparkling Ziggy Stardust cut “Starman” into on-the-nose montage fodder and Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive” into the corniest credit track this side of “My Heart Will Go On.”

“And so you’re back… from outer space!” Okay, Ridley.

The movie’s flood of “haha” funny jokes will appeal to some, as will the rah-rah climax that sees Damon and company engage in a dopey action sequence that demolishes all precepts of believability. But crowd-pleasing doesn’t mean good, or even interesting. It just speaks to audience bias, our innate ability to like something because of what it’s about instead of how it’s about it.

Since “The Martian” is so enthusiastic about space exploration and basic scientific problem solving, likeminded individuals might find it contagious. In that sense, this is Ridley Scott at his peak, making accessible, absolutely meaningless fluff that will feel good to many because it’s undemanding wish fulfillment.

But for a film that thinks itself a love note to human intelligence and emotion, it doesn’t require a single thought or elicit a single genuine feeling from its audience. We don’t know much more about Mark Watney at the end of the movie than we did at the beginning, and we inexplicably know even less about everyone else.

It’s all cinematic pandering of the highest order, complete with a bullshit group hug pre-end credit sequence scored by The O’Jays’s “Love Train” and staged with all the artistry of an insurance commercial.

Ridley Scott and company have concocted the most colossally mediocre sci-fi movie of the decade, all in pursuit of empty backslapping and a grade school level celebration of science. Not only is “The Martian” not in the same class as Scott’s two masterpieces – “Alien” and “Blade Runner” – it’s not even on the same continent.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 2, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: Drew Goddard
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, injury images, and brief nudity)