This year’s epic space adventure film The Martian is a massive box office success, and a general favorite of film critics everywhere. But does Matt Damon have the acting chops to shoulder the emotional weight of a man marooned on Mars?
The Martian is based on the book of the same name by Andy Weir, which tells the story of astronaut and botanist Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars and forced to survive for over a year while NASA desperately tries to rescue him.
The film adaptation of The Martian drops the audience head first into the action, only devoting a minute or two to playful banter between the six Mars astronauts before a terrestrial storm causes the team to abort their mission and leave Matt Damon behind. Being aware of the long run time going into The Martian makes the tiny exposition understandable, because you know how much script you have to get through.
Even so, The Martian’s first minor mistake is allowing almost no development between Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney and the men and women who abandoned him. Perhaps this would make sense if the Mars team never showed up again, but they’ll be brought back full force for the film’s final act. The lack of on-screen human connection between them and Watney diminishes the emotional impact of The Martian’s resolution.
The vast majority of The Martian is impossibly good, with jaw-dropping visuals of the terrifyingly desolate red planet, as well as gaping glimpses of open space. The sets, costumes and props look so authentic, you’d swear The Martian simply borrowed NASA’s newest innovations. But its biggest flaw does seem to be a surprising shallowness to the character’s psychological states. Despite having some of Hollywood’s best actors giving some of the year’s best performances, much of The Martian script paints its plentiful characters as upbeat and mostly unaffected. This includes the parts played by Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, and especially Matt Damon, who you’d expect to be wrestling with a constant mortal terror.
Given the plot of The Martian, you might think more screen time would be devoted to existential inner monologues about death and isolation, but virtually all of Matt Damon’s lines are jokes — cocky quips delivered to a video diary. This includes lines like “F*** you, Mars,” and “I’m going to have to science the s*** out of this,” which are hilarious and perfectly in-character for Watney. But is it natural for the character to be so cheerful for the entire duration of the movie, even if he’s acting silly to keep himself sane?
Obviously, director Ridley Scott made a conscious decision to keep The Martian more entertaining than existential, but Matt Damon’s unflinching psyche often seems unrealistic. There’s even a part of the film where the director of the Mars mission, Vincent Kapoor, notes how difficult it must be for Watney to alone, millions of miles from home. Then the film cuts to Watney complaining about the disco music he’s stuck listening to.
The moments he does spend quietly pondering his own mortality are few and far between — and for all we know, he’s simply running equations in his head. Positive-thinking is certainly a major theme of the movie, but Matt Damon only truly breaks down twice — once after a major disaster within his Mars outpost and once before the climax of the film. These moments are outstandingly powerful, but The Martian could have benefited from spending more time tampering with the emotions of the audience, rather than impressing them with accurate science and trying to make them laugh.
For anyone interested in an amazingly well-constructed hard science fiction film that’s heavy on atmosphere, visuals and acting talent — look no further than The Martian. You’ll be guaranteed to experience the heart-pounding haywire emotions right along with Mark Watney; but there may not be quite as many lows as the trailers would have you believe. Most of the low points in The Martian actually take place on Earth, with the scientists at NASA struggling with constant setbacks that keep them from bringing “their boy” home. This is also the primary source of suspense in The Martian: the seemingly impossible task of dispatching help to a distant planet. Like Variety says, The Martian sends a powerful message about the triumph of human collaboration — nobody can make it on their own.
Overall, The Martian is a jaw-dropping, multi-sensory experience that will make you relieved to remember you’re safe on Earth. While you might have to imagine the soul-rending anxiety of a mercilessly indifferent universe for yourself, you’ll still find yourself forgetting that the events of The Martian never actually happened — because it all feels so real.
Have you seen The Martian? What did you think?
[The Martian images: 20th Century Fox; Ridley Scott image: Bill Ingalls/NASA / Getty Images]