The Martian is a perfect Hollywood blockbuster - benefitting from spot on casting, set design, and special effects, but also suffering from metronome pace, excessive exposition, and an overall aversion to risk-taking.
Just putting it out there: I didn’t like the book. I found the plot to be unique and compelling, if not overly expository – in some cases closer resembling a bloated word problem from high school math than a novel – but somewhat bogged down by clunky storytelling. There’s points in the novel where action and emotion are manifesting themselves as decidedly visceral through the events playing out, but Wier’s odd insistence on maintaining the device of journal logs, along with it the overly sardonic tone so pervasive among armchair, internet satirists to which the serial first gained traction, keeps us at a narrative distance that prevents the type of engagement such a lofty tale warrants. However, just the sheer amount of loving detail Wier’s put into crafting this Castaway cross Apollo 13 fable means that, at the core of it, there’s a believable, compelling story here.
Ridley Scott, who, like the aging, cinematic auteur equivalent of Ledger’s Joker – a dog, profoundly adept at chasing cars and no idea what to do when he actually catches it – has an extraordinary eye for spectacle, but, as evidenced in the lackluster Prometheus and Robin Hood, no idea how to channel these moments into compelling story. That is to say, the man can do wonders with a proper script. Just think of how vibrant and rich a world Scott realized when given the silicon template of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Hence, when Scott was attached to direct what I’d read as exactly that – a template, one in his de facto genre no less – I approached with cautious optimism.
And to a large extent, The Martian exceeds in exactly where it should. The casting is impeccable; Damon so aligns with the voice of Watney that it’s impossible to go back and read the source with any other inflection; yet simultaneously, he’s beginning to show his age, looking downright haggard in a few fleeting moments. The Martian landscape is absolutely breathtaking. Nowhere before have such vivid and realistic renderings of extra-planetary landscapes appeared on screen – one’s which, as evidenced by Monday’s announcements, are no less pertinent to our own real endeavors. Between this, Interstellar, and Gravity, the boys down in Houston are happy to say the least; it’s as if all that was cool and exciting in physics textbooks, disorganized desks and empty AutoCAD designs has welled up and burst onto the screen in one spontaneous moment of anthropological jouissance. It’s a shame such a marvelous centralization of human experience has yet to breach the hallowed walls of studio lots with analogously potent vital signs from the critical discourse.
My biggest problem is the film’s pacing. The scenes are edited so rhythmic and formulaic that you could set a watch to it. It’s as if Scott was so busy - literally building mountains out of mole-hills down at the VFX labs - that he forget he was actually making a movie and not just a digital eden entire, from which he’ll likely inhabit with more heavy-handed alien allegory (Prometheus: Paradise Lost, coming soon people. Get your kicks on the pastiche clobbering together of what one takes to be the greatest hits of the last two millennia’s creation myths, religious scriptures, and pseudoscience all in the hopes that the feigned alignment of symbols might come together in some deeply moving hidden meaning). And on the seventh day, Scott stopped by the edit labs, put all the good takes in chronological order, and swept them up in one motion – import all: with 5 second duration. The film’s got a heartbeat, the absolute worst kind – a pacemaker. Rather than savor the highs or lows - the actuation of atrial chambers that makes one feel alive, enthralled, entertained - the film is driven by the omnipresent being, shifting between frames with mechanical vigor, dictating the action sequences will be at a length exactly so, and in the faintest glimpses of an aura on the high-heaven of a midsummer’s production budget, you can almost see the outline of a studio name.
Perhaps the clearest violation along these lines occurs in what I might term, for lack of a better word, ‘volleying’. There’s two primary locations in which the film takes place (if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve already had this reveal spoiled) and the script has such an insecurity at the mainline ethos that’s driving its narrative thread that it feels the need to spool these strands up in neat packages bookending scenes. So in one location we have a character say, “I wonder what he’s thinking now”, CUT TO: the other scene, where we see what he’s thinking now. Later we have another instance of this, where the character says, “…provided nothing bad goes wrong”, CUT TO: the other scene, something bad goes wrong. It feels cheap, artificial, and, in a movie that expects you to understand how burning hydrazine fuel can make water, belittles the audience.
Yet, the most egregious sin of this technique is that it ultimately undermines the hidden pathos of Weir’s original novel. To be clear, there’s very little internal meditation in the source material, but the screen begs such a demand to explore this; this is a man stuck on fucking Mars. Can you imagine the emotional weight to bear on this individual? He’s four years out from potential rescue and stuck on this desolate, beautifully realized world – but yet we make nothing of it. We spend so much time inside the hab or MAV that it’s even difficult to locate the film on Mars rather than some highly advanced submersible. The landscape, frightening as it is, doesn’t exist outside Scott’s sterile 5-second cuts. Admittedly, there is one small moment later in the film that’s shared solely between Watney and the landscape, but it occurs with so little emotional buildup and is so quickly glazed over that it lacks the punch it so justly should have. Whereas in the novel this tension is often broken by the juvenile interruptions of Watney’s own unrealistic dialogue, referencing pirate-ninjas and other cultural milieu of the subredit generation, in the film this is broken by the insistent, driving force of the film itself. So much effort’s gone into putting Watney in exactly this place, on exactly this journey, exactly this isolated, that it’s a shame this journey is so harried by the need to just get to the fucking end, and to do so in as conventional, as neat manner as possible.