"The Martian" is science-fiction with an emphasis on the "science" part, a big-budget adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling 2011 novel that only takes a few minor liberties in its bid for scientific accuracy. The premise, pared down to the essentials, is simple yet attention-grabbing: an astronaut, believed dead, is left stranded on Mars by his crew. Director Ridley Scott (2013's "The Counselor
") knows his way around cinematic voyages into outer space (he did, after all, helm 1979's "Alien" and 2012's "Prometheus
"), but this time he trades in frightening extraterrestrials for a story rooted more solidly in realism. "The Martian" is an old-fashioned adventure yarn where the only villain is the harsh, desolate, unforgiving environment of a planet that is, on average, 140 million miles away from Earth. Unfortunately, the film is admirable more for what it strives to be than what it achieves. The screenplay by Drew Goddard (2013's "World War Z
")not unlike the characters he has writtenis lacking personality, moving on a steady, subdued path that captures one's attention if not his or her heart.
When a violent dust storm throttles the crew of Mars-based mission Ares III and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is thought fatally injured by satellite debris, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) must make the tough decision to evacuate their landing site. Wounded but very much alive, Mark quickly assesses his options and comes to one startling conclusion: he has been left frighteningly alone on a planet so far away it could potentially take four years to be rescued. Stranded among surroundings not fit to sustain human life, he must use every skill he has learned as an engineer and scientist to help him survive. When NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) learns Mark didn't perish, a race against time to bring him home begins.
"The Martian" is closer in tone to 2000's observant drama "Cast Away
" than 2013's taut thriller "Gravity
," leaving Matt Damon (2013's "Elysium
"), as Mark Watney, by himself for nearly the full duration. Unlike similar one-man shows like that aforementioned Tom Hanks-starrer or 2013's Robert Redford-led "All Is Lost
," his scenes of resourcefulness and solitude are interspersed with ones delving into the inner workings back at NASA and the sacrificial decisions Watney's crew (months into their journey home) make when they learn he is still alive. Damon is certainly capable of pulling off the demands of this role, but so little is learned about Mark and the life he stands to lose back homethere is but a single fleeting mention of his parents, and no other reference whatsoever to loved onesthat one's interest in his fate relies solely on the appeal of the actor himself. Whereas Robert Zemeckis' deeply moving "Cast Away
" dug deeper and grew to become so much more than a story of a man stuck on a deserted island, "The Martian" is more technical in nature and barebones as a narrative. It is fascinating and even informative to watch Mark as he uses the limited resources he has to harvest potatoes, make water, and warm up his rover using a decaying radioactive isotope, but moments where he simply sits alone with his thoughts, contemplating his predicamenthe is, after all, by himself for yearsare in short supply. In at least every other scene, he is also seen eating away, putting into question the strict food rationing by which he is supposedly abiding.
When the plot segues to the other side of the rescue operationthe work back at Houston's Johnson Space Center to expedite a new Mars mission, and later a return to the spacecraft carrying Lewis and astronaut colleagues Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie)an absorbing insider's look is provided of all the intricate moving parts going into their attempts to viably save Watney before his food runs out. Those viewers expecting anything in the way of character development, however, will come up dry. One of the most notable failings of Drew Goddard's script is its general flatness and lack of personality. Every supporting player is virtually interchangeable beyond their physical appearance and job title; they all talk the same, conduct business the same, stand and look concerned the same, and anything that might have helped to distinguish them as people rather than faces is kept to the barest of minimums. The impressive cast assembledamong them, Jessica Chastain (2014's "Interstellar
") as Commander Melissa Lewis; Jeff Daniels (2014's "Dumb & Dumber To
") as pragmatic NASA director Teddy Sanders; Kristen Wiig (2014's "The Skeleton Twins
") as director of media relations Annie Montrose, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (2015's "Z for Zachariah
") as earthbound Mars mission director Vincent Kapoorcan do no wrong, but ultimately don't have much to do.
The curious monotone throughline of "The Martian" holds the film back from the sweeping human heights and general charisma in which it is capable. Fortunately, the situations are arresting enough on their own that the decidedly tempered emotional impact is not irreparably damaging. Aesthetic credits are spot-on, from Dariusz Wolski's (2015's "The Walk
") immersive lensing to Arthur Max's (2012's "Prometheus
") sleek, modernistic production design, while the upbeat '70s disco playlist left behind by Lewis that simultaneously keeps Mark company and drives him crazy makes for a sardonic counterpoint. If there is urgency in Mark's plans for survival and NASA's tactics to bring him home, the story's timespan of two-plus years doesn't exactly lend itself to breakneck pacing. Those expecting a stream of major action set-pieces won't get them until the rousingly orchestrated climax; this is first and foremost a chamber drama, one that happens to be set on the rocky surface of an alien landscape where the only escape may or may not be coming from above in a few years' time. "The Martian" is saliently researched, telling a wild but not inconceivable tale absorbing for its artistic prowess and attention to detail. Were the characters as vividly drawn as Mark's ordeal, it would have satisfied the crucial missing ingredient keeping the picture from becoming the existential powerhouse it wants to be.