The Martian is half Robinson Crusoe, half Gravity, and one-hundred-percent empty, manipulative, self-satisfied Hollywood blockbuster. It’s not exactly what you would call a bad movie. The first half is a mildly entertaining sequel to Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon with a high-IQ, now a well-adjusted graduate of the University of Chicago using every once of his powerful mind to survive on a desolate planet. The second half is a decent rolling coaster ride. It’s just that there are better uses for $108 million dollars. The Martian’s larger ideological agenda, to bring back the pro-science, can-do politics of the Kennedy Administration, would have made a great subject for a much smarter, more character-driven movie. Here it just feels like propaganda, a PSA for NASA. TV did this kind of thing much better in the 1960s at a fraction of the cost.
The Martian opens with Mark Watney, Damon, and a crew of six other astronauts commanded by Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain, on the surface of Mars. A fast moving storm forces an emergency takeoff. Damon gets left behind. Things look grim, but he’s a clever resourceful man, and, like Robinson Crusoe, he eventually finds a way to survive on his own. Bad stuff happens. More bad stuff happens, but nothing with any long lasting consequences. Ridley’s Scott’s Mars is a place where you can repair a damaged space suit with duct tape or dig what essentially amounts to a bullet out of your gut all by yourself and put a band aid on it. What threatens to be the loneliness of solitary confinement on a planet 249 million miles away from Earth where everybody thinks you’re dead is solved when a young woman at NASA simply looks at a TV screen – oh there he is – and our clever hero hacks an old satellite that had crashed landed on the planet decades before.
The Martian never tells as what year it is, but it feels like 2016 with a better space program, the world we would have had if the United States government had built on the genuine accomplishments of that trip to the moon. It’s also the ideal world of a Hillary Clinton supporter. Melissa Lewis is the boss. Mark Watney is her linkable intellectual sidekick. The head of NASA is a WASP male played by Jeff Daniels, but the space program itself is entirely multicultural and feminist – Kristen Wig puts in an appearance as NASA’s press secretary– and the heart, soul, and brains of the whole operation is Vincent Kapoor, a black man played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Kapoor’s sidekick is a skinny blond millennial played by Mackenzie Davis – imagine a high fashion model with zits to prove she’s got nerd cred — and it’s a young black guy named Rich Purnell, Donald no relation to Danny Glover, who thinks up the plan that finally brings Mark Whatney back alive. Even the Chinese get into the act.
In other words, you could do worse than to think of the world of The Martian as Hollywood, if Hollywood weren’t so white and so sexist. The problem is that, like Hollywood, The Martian’s fictional NASA has little, or nothing to do with the rest of the American people. Ridley Scott gives us a lot of very talented, very likable scientists, astronauts and elite intellectuals played by a lot of very likable and very talented A-list Hollywood actors. Except for some Times Square at New Years style crowds, however, we never get a sense of what the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world is like. We the people seem to exist only as an audience to cheer on the gifted and talented scientists at the Johnson Space Center as they stage a multi-billion dollar production of Saving Private Astronaut.
While the world of The Martian is multicultural and feminist, the leading man is still our favorite square-jawed white bro from Southy, Matt Damon. He’s cleaned up his accent a bit and he’s benefited from all that psychotherapy he got from the late Robin Williams, but he’s still Will Hunting, all American boy with a genius-level IQ who decided to get a job with NASA instead of the NSA. You didn’t think they were going to cast a black guy as Robinson Crusoe instead of Friday, did you? The Martian’s decision not ask the question of where NASA gets all that money for that once every four year mission to Mars, to avoid the sociological implications of the world it imagines, winds up taking most of the suspense away from the plot. We know Mark Whatney is going to live. We know that Melissa Lewis is eventually going to turn her space ship around and go back for him. Sandra Bullock left George Clooney behind in the cold, vast depths of outer-space but goddammit, Jessica Chastain is going back for Matt Damon. No movie is going to kill off Matt Damon. You can kill of George Clooney, as long as he goes out in style, but you’re not going to kill of Matt Damon, not after Tom Hanks went though all that trouble of rescuing him from the Nazis.
Like most Hollywood movies, The Martian is a lot of bad writing tied together by an entertaining spectacle. Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard never give as a set of fictional rules their characters have to understand, or die. What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible changes according to how often the screenwriters want it to change. We the viewers are completely passive. Can you grow potatoes on Mars? Sure you can, until the screenplay says you can’t. Can you blast out of its orbit in a tin covered up by a tarp? Yes you can, until the screenplay says it just isn’t quite enough and you need to punch a hole in your space suit and use your remaining oxygen as a mini jet engine. Can you set off a bomb on your space ship, or dig up a nuclear reactor on Mars without getting killed? Yes you can, if Ridley Scott and Drew Godard say you can. That so much bad writing works so well until the film is well-past the 2 hour mark, where you finally begin to nod off, is testament to Ridley Scott’s talent as a director. Like any good roller coaster ride, The Martian makes you grab the arm rest on your chair and hope things all work out for the best. Eventually, however, it all begins to fall apart. The script has front-loaded so much of the plot into the first act on Mars that the editors have to do some fancy editing – “oh shit we only have 20 minutes and we still have to get Private Ryan back to America” — to end the damn thing so we can all get in our cars and go home.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the studio where they were cutting the final release. Ridley Scott storms into find a room full of script doctors desperately trying to write the last act. “What? You’re not finished yet. We need to get this thing out so it can be nominated for an Oscar. Fuck it. End it. Just use a montage. Americans love music videos. They’ll never notice.”