I recall seeing Matt Damon in Interstellar and being blown away by his breakdown when his fellow astronauts revive him after being marooned and isolated from all human contact on a remote planet for years. Matthew McConaughey’s character embraces him and he is reduced to a torrent of tears and sobs. The camera hangs motionless on this scene for what feels like an eternity and I was totally convinced that I was looking at a guy who had spent a lot of time alone.
If only I felt that way about Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. Damon plays Mark Watney, who is left for dead on the Ares expedition to Mars when a freak storm hits the surface of the planet. He wakes the next day to discover that his crew has taken off, headed back to Earth. Over the next 45 minutes or so, we experience all the obstacles Watney must overcome to stay alive in the hopes that another mission will return to rescue him. How will he grow food on a planet that is incapable of sustaining agriculture? What will he do for water? Yes, it’s true, scientists have actually found water on the red planet, but it’s non-potable, so no luck there. Even as he navigates these obstacles, new obstacles spring up. Despite this, at no point do I feel any jeopardy for Watney, because he is such an unflappable character. He never seems to acknowledge his predicament in any way that a typical human being would, what with being trapped on an alien planet nearly 35 million miles from home, faced with starvation, thirst, explosive decompression, etc. His “can-do” attitude, while an appropriate mentality for staying alive, rings false and unreal for the duration of the first hour of the film. He states, “I’ve gotta make water and grow food on a planet where nothing grows,” with no more urgency than if he were trying to organize his dayplanner. No moments of despair, no grief, no anger…all the emotions I’ve seen in just about every prison movie or war movie where characters are thrown into desperate scenarios which include isolation and hopelessness. At some point, after being stranded for a number of days, one would expect to see some measure of these emotions (think the “hole” in Shawshank or in The Hurricane, or the remote Vietnamese jungles of Platoon). All that is thrown to the Martian wind here.
Exacerbating his insouciance is a level of humor that is also a bit off-putting for a man under Gatney’s circumstances. This humor is borne on the melodies of a 70s disco soundtrack which permeates the first hour of the film. The music is a source of comedy which grows tiresome quickly. Imagine just about every lifestyle romcom you’ve seen in the last two decades where there’s an obligatory scene of the main characters dancing/lip-synching/pantomiming a performance to a classic dance track from Motown or Gloria Gaynor, while holding a kitchen utensil or curling iron as a microphone. Now expand that into an hour and put that scene on Mars with a single individual. The result is a character who is poorly written as he uses humor to compensate to an unbelievable degree as he finds himself in a seemingly hopeless situation. And it leaves me unable to believe in the character. I found myself far more interested in the goings-on back on Earth at NASA, as mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), and engineer Bruce Ng (the excellent Benedict Wong) work around the clock to help Gatney. I liked seeing Donald Glover portray a “blerd,” (black nerd; it’s a relatively new term) who is a genius level astrophysicist, even though he hams it up to an eye-rolling level. But again, the tone of these scenes see-saws from appropriately grave to comedic. I also found it annoying that more than a handful of the NASA think tank looked like extras from the Big Bang Theory (ageism even at NASA?), and Kristen Wiig as a NASA spokesperson is gratingly miscast.
Then something happens. Something that causes the entire tone of the film to change. Gone is the cliched disco music, the unflappable attitude. An hour into the film, something happens that makes me suddenly interested in Mark Gatney. For the first time, he seems worried, scared, frustrated, fearful, all the things he should’ve been from the start. The movie takes on an urgency that snapped me out of my ennui and I found myself on the edge of my seat. Even after having seen Gravity, Apollo 13, and other movies that follow similar beats, I must say this film creates a setup so fraught with risk, it is unmatched by any of those other films. I can’t say much more so as not to spoil, but the last hour of this film is possibly the most thrilling filmmaking I’ve seen in awhile. The all-star cast, also including Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña all shine in these scenes. Kate Mara is also on board, hoping to erase the stench of her last film, The Fantastic Four, even though she spends as much time looking at computer screens in this film.
I said earlier that I found Damon’s character in Interstellar, as he weeps for joy, to be a realistic portrayal of an isolated human being. It made me more interested to see what he went through to get to that point where he breaks down. Given the similarity of that character’s situation with what is presented here, The Martian had an opportunity to explore the psychology of a man lost in space. Had it done so, it would’ve made for a far better film. 3/5 reels