Ridley Scott’s The Martian is essentially Saving Private Ryan in space. As in Private Ryan, The Martian is about an impossible, improbable mission to save one man, and as in that movie, the man is again Matt Damon, who should know better by now than to keep getting himself into these situations.
During a manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is left behind, assumed dead after a sudden storm. They fail to grasp that killing Matt Damon is very difficult, and that indeed, Watney, by severe good fortune, has managed to survive the storm.
At which point, The Martian also begins to resemble Castaway… in space, unfortunately without a volley-ball companion with whom Damon might exchange affection.
Stranded on a desolate planet with an unbreathable atmosphere or food to sustain him, Watney must use his ingenuity to survive; farming a potato crop in the space crew’s stored excrement; reviving a buried 1997 Pathfinder probe; and eventually managing to communicate frugally with the earth command that had taken him for dead.
This, naturally, is intercut with the dramatics of the NASA command centre operatives (including Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor), who must juggle politics, logistics, internal squabbles and mechanical feats du jour in order to get Watney safely home.
The Martian, unfortunately, is plagued by several problems, the least of which is its derivativeness to other films, aside from the ones mentioned, including The Right Stuff and Mission to Mars.
The story is pure formula, the characters mostly flat, space/disaster archetypes. This is especially true of the Earth scenes, which drag unnecessarily and continually detract from the eerie Mars atmosphere the film would have been better to cultivate. At just short of two-and-a-half hours, it is unambiguously padded to its detriment with scenes of arguing bureaucrats and Damon idling time by himself in space.
Yet, for the most part, The Martian manages to work, and for several reasons.
Watching a man try to survive on a foreign planet using his wits is actually compelling. What will he do next? You want to know. It may just be Robinson Crusoe or Castaway transplanted, but with the prospect of actual Mars exploration imminent, The Martian elicits a certain fascination in that regard for what is essentially the next frontier.
Secondly, disregarding how entirely predictable a script this is, the actors -and especially Sean Bean- sell their characters in a mostly believable way, transmuting, like alchemists, mediocrity into something very respectable, something human and personable – if not quite gold; just enough to make you care. Damon, if a little obnoxious, is very good, especially considering he spends much of the film alone with no one else to act off of.
The merits of 3D -here, as elsewhere- are debatable in The Martian. Sure, occasionally, the sense of spatial depth is fairly spectacular, but for every scene that looks spectacular, there are twice as many more that are not. Whether you enjoy this movie in 3D will probably come down to how much you like or dislike 3D film in general.
Objectively flawed it might be, The Martian is still above average entertainment.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10