Like Gravity and Interstellar before it, The Martian gets to position itself as an Oscar bait movie, despite really just being a summer blockbuster. Importantly though, this is a really fun blockbuster.
The Martian feels refreshing for one specific reason: It’s a space movie that never feels the need to fall into Aliens, mysticism, religion, or metaphor in the way that space movies almost always do. There’s no higher power here, this is straight triumph of humans. Problem after problem presents itself, and it’s up to the characters, mainly Matt Damon, to solve them. Nothing more nothing less. This is a straight adventure movie.
The reason most space (I guess specifically Astronaut) movies don’t do this is that they live in the shadows of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Certainly this was true of Gravity and Interstellar, and like most movies that live in that space, they’re just not insane enough to get there and so wind up closer to 2010: The Year We Made Contact. (A movie I kinda like honestly, but yeah.)
This movie though does not give a fuck about that, its aims are elsewhere entirely, because it doesn’t find space terrifying and unknowable. That’s the big difference, here space sure is dangerous, but its dangers are specific and known. No one is wandering into the unknown, they know the risks and they go anyway. It doesn’t dig into existential doubts about the nature of the universe, because it’s too busy dealing with the actual problems in front of it. Just as Matt Damon’s character, Mark Watney, doesn’t have time to freak out about his imminent death, he’s got too much to do.
And that’s the whole key to this movie, despite being about a man stranded an uninhabitable wasteland, it’s also about a man doing a job he loves. We get to share in Watney’s wonder and enthusiasm at the feats he accomplishes, because he is stoked about them.
The movie is very flawed though. Particularly the scenes back at NASA, which are weirdly dumb in so many ways I won’t even enumerate them. It was generally a funny kind of dumb, and the movie overall is just so fun that I can overlook them, but goddam, what the fuck sometimes with this movie. Also, there’s a shameless subplot about how the Chinese need to help with their special super probe, that obviously exists for the Chinese market. It sticks out like a sore thumb and is pointless to the plot. I’m also not a big fan of Ridley Scott as a director, and I think this movie just doesn’t hold together as well as it should. It’s hard to put my finger on, but it’s a combination of shots and editing that, while serviceable, never really leaves an impression, even when it really should.
I think The Martian isn’t as good as Interstellar, but I like it more. Matt Damon is really good, and carries the movie, but it’s also a less impressive performance than McConaughey in Interstellar. That’s not a knock, and is mostly a function of what the roles ask, and yet. Interstellar is also constructed much better, whereas The Martian is just really a series of events, many of which are haphazard. That’s kind of the point, but I think it makes it a less memorable picture. The thing is though, the way The Martian lets itself just be about characters overcoming the odds, and allows them to just bullshit with each other in the face of disaster appeals to me more. It feels authentic and it’s funny. The Martian is never out to make you, the audience, feel sad; it’s just bringing you along with these characters, whose job it is to be in space, where anything and everything can go wrong.
This is a fun silly movie, I really enjoyed it.