Or MacGyver in Space, as Ron dubbed it as the lights went up. Benn asked me to review this one so the whole family trekked to the nearest town with a cinema for the experience. I will tell you from the outset that this review will have spoilers. Not that I will reveal anything that’s not patently obvious as soon as the movie starts, no, actually, as soon as you see the movie poster. This is a Hollywood film through and through and that means it’s predictable, patriotic and full of heroic blokes.
The Martian is based on a book of the same name by Andy Weir that Tee really liked. Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a botanist with a team of five others on Mars seemingly to collect soil samples. Mars seems a bit like Arizona with a red filter. The others on the team are all recognisable archetypes/stereotypes – the tough and beautiful commander who is a woman (oh my goodness Hollywood, you are fiercely subverting gender roles), the nerdy computer girl, the funny Latino, the hunky guy and the German. Mark Watney is the…well he’s Matt Damon so he’s the nice guy who doesn’t think he’s a hero but of course is. A storm comes in as the team are collecting samples and as they flee Mars, Watney is injured and left for dead. Which of course he’s not, or it would have been a very short movie.
After this first five minutes of high drama, our attention is split between watching how Watney survives alone on Mars as he waits for rescue and the boffins and politicos back at NASA bickering over what they should do. This is one of the ways this movie misses the mark. There was potential to really feel Watney’s isolation and mental anguish as he grapples with his mortality, like in Castaway, but the film seems to skate over the surface of this. Somehow it doesn’t look too hard, yes he huffs and puffs a bit when he’s trying to do stuff outside in his suit but the sun shines and it still looks like Arizona. Whenever there’s a survival problem, he quickly finds some bit of ‘science’ to solve it and we are never really worried about his safety or in doubt that he will survive. Very MacGyver. He makes wisecracks to his gopro. Violins play.
We spend a lot of time with the boffins back home and it feels like a hodge podge of so many other ‘we’ll bring him back’ and ‘let’s save the world’ movies – Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13, Independence Day. “It’s too expensive”, “we can’t risk more lives”, “I’m a scientist and I have a daring plan”, “let’s go get our boy.” Plans work, plans don’t work, someone is evil, people at NASA cheer in front of a wall of screens. You will have seen it all before.
Some of the ‘science’ seems ludicrous, done for visual effect and to add drama that they hadn’t bothered to build through character and narrative. Thank goodness for gaffer tape though. The gender roles, well don’t get me started. We can believe in manned missions to Mars but god forbid any of the clever sciencey folk at NASA would be women. There are two – a wasted Kristen Wiig who stands wide-eyed and sometimes has lines but seems to be there to react in surprise to what the blokes are doing and Mackenzie Davis as a nerdy girl who seems to be there to smile at what the blokes are doing. According to Tee, both of these characters are interesting and tough women in the book who play much larger parts in the narrative. In the movie, the clever people are all blokes. There are the two women on the team but they don’t get much space or depth.
I think sub-text in a movie is interesting, particularly when it is largely unintended. The sub-text of this one is that America is great and full of clever, altruistic, heroic people and institutions willing to risk everything for a single ordinary man. Along with the dubious science, it makes it hard to believe this movie and although there are moments when it is an enjoyable ride, ultimately you feel hoodwinked.
Bechdel test – pass