I was reminded of several other movies while watching this one. Most obvious was the 1960s low-budget Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I say “obvious”, but when I mentioned the connection on Facebook, I got a lot of puzzled replies. For one thing, The Martian had about 100 times the budget of the earlier film ($108 million vs. $1.2 million). For perspective, Matt Damon was paid somewhere between $15 million and $25 million to star as Mark Watney in The Martian. The budget also allowed Ridley Scott to have the services of the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover in his supporting cast. (The supporting cast for Robinson Crusoe on Mars included Adam West before Batman, and Mona, the Woolly Monkey.) Anyway, The Martian’s plot can be summarized nicely via the other movie’s title, for it really is a Robinson Crusoe story that takes place on Mars.
Daniel Defoe’s novel is ripe for analysis ... it can be read as an apology for imperialism, for example. The Martian barely delves into this (Watney connects the potatoes he grows to colonization), although I’d say it’s implicit in the story. No, The Martian is pretty straightforward, which isn’t to say it lacks a point of view beyond what is necessary for the narrative. Andrew O’Hehir got this right, when he spent half of his review promoting space discovery, calling the movie “a feature-length advertisement for the possibilities of a new human spaceflight program”. My wife was also on this from the start ... she regularly congratulated Watney for using science to solve his problems as they arose, and it is true, it is human ingenuity fed by scientific knowledge that rules here ... there aren’t many metaphysics involved.
The film is structured in a way that retains our interest despite its length (more than half an hour longer than Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I’m sure you’re sick of me bringing up that movie by now). There isn’t any suspense to speak of ... we know that Watney will solve every problem, because while you can imagine a movie that surprises us with the death of a main character early on, no one really thinks Matt Damon is getting paid millions of dollars just to get killed off. Similarly, we know that Jessica Chastain and her crew will return to save Watney because she wasn’t signed up to appear for ten minutes.
So The Martian is by-the-numbers. But it’s effective, and for the most part, Scott avoids smarmy scenes of the family back on Earth worrying about Dad. Damon is likable here, and since he’s on screen most of the time, often talking to himself, that’s a good thing.
But I was also reminded of another recent big-budget space picture, Gravity, which I loved. The shorthand explanation for why I prefer that movie is that I really like Alfonso Cuarón and think Ridley Scott is mostly overrated. But that’s just taste preferences, and doesn’t explain anything, really. Cuarón manages a mere 91-minute running time, which of course I like ... it’s one thing to say The Martian keeps our attention for 2 1/2 hours, but another to suggest we needed that long. Gravity strips things down to essentials ... Sandra Bullock carries the film as Matt Damon does in The Martian, but she doesn’t have a large supporting cast ... there are basically two characters, which doesn’t allow for a lot of expansion. Also, The Martian does not have the cosmic existential feel of Gravity ... the quasi-religious nature of the latter doesn’t really have a place in the science-oriented world of The Martian. I guess I’m just saying the two films aren’t as alike as they seem, and my taste preferences run in the direction of Gravity.
I feel like all I’ve done is compare The Martian to other movies, but outside of saying it was enjoyable and well-made, what else can I say? If it’s not as good as Gravity, it’s miles better than something like Apollo 13. Matt Damon is a deserving nominee for Best Actor ... the movie also has four tech nominations, along with Best Picture (I’m still going with Mad Max: Fury Road) and Best Adapted Screenplay (I’m a fan of Drew Goddard and think it would be fun to see him win an Oscar, but I don’t know that this screenplay is all that great). The Martian is a perfectly good movie, and there is nothing wrong with that. 7/10.