THE MARTIAN is a blend of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (a very good movie) and RED PLANET, right up to the climax (I’ve not seen any reviews that mention that the ending is simply lifted from that Val Kilmer movie).
The strangest thing about THE MARTIAN is that it’s not very weird. It’s part of the trend of Realism in science fiction movies. See, weirdness is seen as somehow childish by overgrown children who love their superhero movies. Weirdness is disturbing. It’s somehow not childish if you like a science fiction movie that could actually happen. A movie is somehow better for you if it could actually happen in the real world.
THE MARTIAN is a male counterpart to GRAVITY, a ‘realistic’ view of space exploration that COULD happen. Where GRAVITY’s about a woman in orbit trying to get home to Earth. THE MARTIAN is about a man on another planet trying to get home to Earth by Sciencing.
One thing that kept me going was the strangely programmatic use of ethnic diversity. In ALIEN the mix of the crew was completely natural-seeming, right up to the genius of having the traditional he-man white guy captain get killed fairly early on, so that the last three surviving characters were the ones who often get knocked off early in movies: the black guy and the two women. In the end, the woman survived because she seemed like the one who handled the situation best, not because someone decided “Let’s have a woman survive for a change.” Which is funny, because that WAS the thinking behind her survival. But you can do diversity well, and effectively comment on the cliches and unreality of an all-white-male ideal, as ALIEN did.
In THE MARTIAN, on the other hand, we see Hollywood’s hypocrisy on the matter–they show us all sorts of non-white folks in subsidiary positions for cosmetic reasons, while the main characters are two white males and a black male (and one white female, who is missing for large periods while the men handle everything). When diversity SEEMS to grow out of the story or situation naturally, as in ALIEN, it doesn’t matter if it’s been mapped out for some extra-story reason–if it works, it works. Too often, such choices feel like they’re the result of directives from H.R. You can almost hear the executives going through their check list: “OK, now we need a black guy…ok we need a Chinese guy who is of course completely non-political to show they’re cool, too…and we got one black guy, the Hispanic dude in the apparent position of power who’s really just following orders….” It was as distracting as the overdone joke about disco music, which is funny the first three or four times. (The first two.)
The movie’s okay. I enjoyed GRAVITY more. (I’m a little perplexed by the backlash against GRAVITY; I don’t like Sandra Bullock at all but found her just right in that part.) The visuals are outstanding, but this is Ridley Scott, that’s a given. I think they could have lost half an hour, because the problems he encountered became repetitive. We also don’t learn anything about the character other than his desire to survive and that he’s real smart. The movie seems so proud of itself for not making the hero and his female commander be romantically involved, but it forgets to put something in the place of that sort of relationship, so Damon’s character seems neutral–he’s A Man. I think that would have worked with a movie like ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, with long periods of no dialogue, but this movie is very talky. It spends most of its running time on geeks ‘working the problem’ and I like a movie that prizes science and competence. But it’s also kind of dull. And simply appropriating the ending from RED PLANET, a decent little flick, is shameful, or should be, because here the crowd scenes and cheering seem rote.
It’d be better if it had some weirdness in it. Instead, it is a perfectly fine movie about office politics in space. Which, I grant you, is kinda weird.