The Martian is a well told piece of crowdpleasing entertainment that wants you to like it so much that it doesn't bother to put its hero in any real danger, emotional or otherwise. You'd think being trapped on Mars by yourself for a year and a half might not be such an enjoyable experience set to disco montages and wisecracks every five minutes, but such is Matt Damon's plight- not so much a plight but an unwelcome extended vacation.
Maybe I'm being a little harsh. This film is based on the bestselling science fiction novel by Andy Weir, and plays as sort of a cross between Apollo 13 and Cast Away- two movies that had far more emotional impact than this one is able to manage. Damon plays the wisecracking astronaut who's part of a wisecracking crew, on a mission to Mars in the presumably near future, who gets stranded and left behind by his teammates when an unexpected storm hits. As the crew leaves him for dead, he turns out to have been accidentally impaled (not fatally) and wakes up on Mars alone, doomed to live out the remainder of his days in the ship and starve to death, since it will be four years before a rescue crew would be able to reach him.
This is a dangerous and depressing situation, but Damon's innovative Mark Watney rallies to the challenge, deciding to vlog his daily activities (the better to keep us up to speed on his jokes) and in his words "science the shit" out of his situation to extend his survival while attempting to reach NASA. Damon pretty much carries the movie, but half of it is set on Earth with the NASA officials, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jeff Daniels, also not shy with the wisecracks, as they lead a crack team to formulate the rescue plan, which eventually involves Watney's crew that left him behind and is now on their way home.
You might be able to tell that the jokey dialogue in this movie bothered me some, and I don't deny that I found it mildly irritating. That combined with the disco soundtrack (all the requisite hits you'd imagine) serves to lower the stakes in this film to the point where you never for one second feel that Watley is in any real danger or that we won't get the inevitable rescue scene followed by the crowds back home on Earth cheering for the American ingenuity of it all. The good part of the film is the hard and very real science pulled directly from the book and included as a kind of geekfest of how Watney's survival and NASA's rescue mission might actually come together if this were really happening- but if it were, I think the emotional involvement might be a little higher. In Cast Away, we were so invested in Tom Hank's plight that we cried when his best friend Wilson the volleyball was taken away by the ocean waves. Here there is no single moment when we are asked to feel anything other than easygoing amusement and superficial satisfaction brought on by a soundtrack which of course includes "I Will Survive." It plays nothing at all like a Ridley Scott movie, usually a master of mood and atmosphere, and you can't help but think he needed a paycheck from the studio for this one. This may be enough to satisfy the masses, but the shallowness of the experience left me wanting more. Much more.
* * 1/2