In The Martian, Matt Damon plays a cosmonaut as emotionally barren as the ochre planet on which he’s stranded. Ridley Scott’s latest film is a robotic exaltation of science, problem-solving and ingenuity; if you can tolerate the gaping logical perforations on its admittedly rambunctious surface, you’ll still have to wade through a sea of Cold War-era pro-American sentiment to see the human drama, which is relegated to the sub-subtext. Indeed, rather than grapple with the solitude of their protagonist, Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard use science to build a protective armour around him, shielding the spaceman from his own loneliness and the now-quaint idea of human vulnerability.1 Instead we’re served volleys of irrepressible optimism and resourcefulness, all unchipped by the physical and emotional tolls that accompany the nine-hundred days spent alone on a planet in which human life is completely untenable. This pre-Freudian man has no repressible attributes — he’s a perky ego in a spacesuit. When it comes time for the inevitable ‘triumph-of-the-human-spirit’ that necessitates his regurgitated survival narrative, all that computes is smugness and nationalism. The human spirit can’t triumph if it’s anethetised by entirely synthetic concepts.
Damon plays NASA botanist Mark Watney, abandoned eighteen days into a Mars reconnaissance mission after a brutal dust storm sweeps him astray of his crew, who hurry back to Earth under the assumption that Watney is dead. Dazed, but stable enough to set up fort in the pod-like lodgings left behind, Watney is struck by an ingenious but unlikely plan for survival — one of a dozen lightbulb moments that act as jet fuel for The Martian’s narrative. He doesn’t think or strategise, the ideas simply come to him, and he espouses them in frivolous bits of diaristic exposition spoken directly to camera. Meanwhile on Earth, NASA boss Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and his team (Kristen Wiig, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Donald Glover — a rather distracting conglomeration of actors known for severely divergent genres) decide not to inform the still space-bourne crew that Watney is alive on the red planet, leaving them lingering in ignorance. Aboard that ship, stranded in narrative purgatory, are Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Pena and a few other minor players, unquestioningly flat creations who work at NASA’s service with unwavering glee. Nine-hundred days fly by as Scott flings us between these three sets — Earthlings, the Martian and the crew in-between.
It’s disappointing to see Ridley Scott — who launched his formidable career by looking upward to the cosmos and turning its inky-black reaches into a miasma of dread and isolation in 1979’s Alien — so disinterested in the wider universe’s fictive possibilities. After the bungled (but at least ambitious) space-nonsense of Prometheus and the cataclysmically scrambled spectacle of last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott plays a safe hand with this mythology-free (science only!) survivor story based on Andy Weir’s self-published book of the same name, and adapted for the screen by Goddard. It’s the latter’s script that dictates The Martian’s perky mood and bro-talk shtick, which are borrowed straight from the Marvel Studios playbook.2 Here, outside of the Marvel wheelhouse, its arbitrariness has never felt more glaringly obvious. The most memorable one liners — “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this!”, “Fuck Mars!” — hinge upon your susceptibility for laughing at swear words. This sensibility is aided by the bouncy soundtrack, filled with disco-era gems from Vicki Sue Robinson, The O’Jays and Abba, and sutured into the narrative in a conceit imitative of the mix tape in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The forced-upon disco sends Watney, who listens begrudgingly, up the wall, but we’re obviously encouraged to enjoy it like one would a ‘guilty pleasure’. The discord between actual pleasure and ironic condescension feels awkward and anachronistic — what is this, 1983?
And the ideology matches the music. Emotional frailty and imagination are expunged from Scott’s distinctly American ideal vision of the future, as though it’s in the country’s best interests that these imperceivably happy characters be constantly working with a sense of near-communist wartime glee, their personal and emotional lives censored from the film’s purview. The Cold War symbolism of NASA as a boastful source of nationhood is reinflated, with Damon shouldering the role of the brave explorer. “I colonised Mars”, says Watney, “in your face Neil Armstrong!” It’s a sentiment that’s easy to buy but — like much palatable American commercialism is want to do — it stains your teeth. The Martian humours the idea that the astronaut is the ideal form on a hierarchy of human life, so brave and noble that billions can be spent to salvage his life without once questioning the inherent aristocracy that this act entails.
That The Martian is postured to become a substantial hit says more about the changing predilections of the market than it does about the merits of the work itself; Scott plays into the hands of a culture dominated by washed, likeable heroes that lack emotional substance, a culture increasingly reliant on spectacle, humour, watertight sci-fi mythology and fleshed out ‘cinematic universes’. Damon’s effortless ingenuity and sanguine charm make his Mark Watney a fashionable protagonist, swaggering into sequence alongside a murderer’s row of cheesy cutouts that precede him: Ant Man, Iron Man and Star Lord amongst them. I couldn’t help but wonder, over and over, whether his bowels could withstand the inane diet of micro-farmed potatoes forced upon them, whether he could cry, or whether he ever once felt lonely or depressed.
For distraction from such pressing matters, The Martian relies on a style that zips along with an effervescent tang, careening through space with the grace of zero-gravity (Jessica Chastain does some lovely floating a la Tree of Life, by the way) and high-spirited jocularity. There are scenes which border on thrilling, like its rescue mission climax evocative of Gravity’s swirling, breathtaking opening. But, unlike Sandra Bullock’s complex Ryan Stone, these players lack the fundamental depth to inspire outstretches of empathy — the set pieces are momentarily gripping by virtue of their scale, but the human stakes glow about as dimly as a dead planet’s core. These details might appear secondary to a film this judiciously obsessed with mythbusting its own survival hypothesis, but to audiences back on Earth, where pathos enriches drama and spectacle, and where cinema should do more than just nicely accompany your popcorn, they remain a priority.