It's so frustrating when so many people like and praise a movie that really doesn't deserve it. The Martian is such a movie. I had such high hopes for it after all the hype, and after reading reviews by smart critics I usually agree with, but it was such a disappointment. Here's why:
Plausibility. Just like Gravity, there are so many non-sensical depictions of the physics of space travel, it makes my head hurt, and I'm not even a physicist. The characters and their actions are pretty implausible too, starting with Damon's chipper attitude about being left alone on a planet 100 million miles from Earth, but certainly not ending there. After realizing he is alone and will be for so long that he will run out of food, he gets the brilliant idea to try to grow his own, which we are supposed to take as a mark of his plucky brilliance. But he's a botanist! What would a botanist be doing on a space mission *except* studying how things grow? And then when an accident causes all his potato plants to die, the brains at NASA (who can't believe he figured a way to grow potatoes in the first place) instantly conclude (and tell us) that since the accident froze all the bacteria in the soil, he won't be able to grow any more. Why not? He still has potatoes to eat, and he still, presumably, shits occasionally, so he has all the ingredients he used the first time. Ugh! My brain hurts!
Writing. The script seems written more by market researchers than a screenwriter. Corny little one-liners ("My balls are frozen!") appeal to the lowest common denominator in the audience, and the relentlessly happy tone makes being stranded on Mars seem like a big party, complete with disco music (literally). And the dialog!! There's a moment when Jeff Daniels, the head of NASA (whom it is hard to imagine has ever ever taken a science class or piloted anything) talks to the heads of the Chinese Space agency who offer (presumedly--we only hear his end of the conversation) to lend one of their ships to the rescue effort. He says, "Mmm Hmm. Okay. I see. Thank you." (That's what a discussion about loaning spacecraft between two space agencies sounds like.) Then he hangs up the phone, clenches his fists, and says, "Yes!" It's like Homer Simpson finding out there is still one donut left. That someone wrote that line is astounding. That the director and actor saw fit to actually shoot it is bewildering. That it survived the editing process and made it into the final cut--well, there should be an investigation.
Pacing. It's a movie about being stranded on Mars for months and months. Why does it feel like a comedy by Woody Allen or Edgar Wright? There is never a pause, never a prolonged quiet moment that might begin to capture something of the unbelievable space and loneliness this movie is supposed to be about. Instead, it is a constant rapid fire of dialog and action. Even the scenes where he is communicating with Earth via text happens faster than I usually get with my iPhone and 4G. (NASA technicians mention, at one point, that there is a 25 minute delay between all communications, but the filmmakers hope we forget this two minutes later when all the subsequent conversations happen instantly). Then there is the rest of the crew and their additional unplanned two years of extra time stuck in the spaceship, going all the way BACK to Mars to pick up what they left there. If I have to run back home to get something I forgot, the trip always seems infuriatingly long. But not these cheery space travelers! Another two years in space! No problem! And it takes only two minutes of screen time. Piece of cake!
AGH! What a frustrating experience. If you want a sugar-coated popcorn movie that will make you think that if being on stranded on Mars isn't really so bad, why complain about our petty little problems here on Earth? then this movie might be for you. It does for being stranded in space what The Shawshank Redemption does for being in prison. It tries to tell us that it's really not THAT bad after all. It's such a lie, and such a disappointment, all the more so because there are so many serious issues and exciting psychological and scientific aspects about space that could have been explored here.
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