Everyone likes Matt Damon, don’t they? And everyone likes Mars. So one can understand the excitement at Andy Weir’s novel being adapted for the big screen. Sure the source material was dry, like the Martian service (or so we thought until recent data showed signs of water); Weir’s interest being the cold, rational application of science in an otherworldly survival situation – a scenario in which there was, apparently, little room for human interest and the psychological effects of prolonged isolation, but no matter. A movie’s the perfect vehicle to preserve Weir’s methodical problem solving, while adding a little human animation. And what better man than the director of warm classics such as Blade Runner and 1492: Conquest of Paradise, to deliver that injection of irrational feeling?
If the hope was that Ridley Scott’s version of the story would graft humanity to this suped-up Apollo 13, the initial signs are promising. Scott makes an effort, as Weir manifestly didn’t, to show some up-front camaraderie between the astronauts – just enough to foreground a crucial plot development well into the second hour. But shortly thereafter we’re left with a stoic Damon on Mars and his low-key, inanimate, consummately professional NASA colleagues on Earth, none of whom appear to have a second gear. The science then, is compelling, just as it was the page, the Martian vistas, shot through Scott’s eyepiece, vast and beautiful, but it’s clear that Scott and writer Drew Goddard felt that adding any pep to the proceedings, any feeling, would upset the tone.
Naturalism, it seems, when standing in for realism, must be dour and reserved. Ah, you say, but isn’t a man being stranded on Mars with the world watching, precisely the kind of situation that’s going to get a cast of characters’ blood up? Well, they’re too professional for that. One can see NASA chief Jeff Daniels shrugging his shoulders at the news that an asteroid is about to destroy the lower hemisphere. It’s alright kids, they’ll fix it. It’s all in a day’s work.
None of which should detract from the fact that The Martian is the dictionary definition of a solid movie. It’s well-paced, there’s plenty of setbacks for the audience to chew their nails over, and it’s lovingly crafted. We learn a lot about an astronaut’s resolve, their grit, chemistry and botany, but Damon, perhaps constrained by his character’s carefully cultivated composure – and how’s that for alliteration, doesn’t convince in the moments he cuts loose.
In a difficult part, in which you’re required to be both a rational machine and an everyman, Damon is permitted a few moments in which to reach out to the audience. The revelation his balls are frozen, being one of them. But ultimately this is a movie that celebrates scientific endeavour and ingenuity in an increasingly irrational and inward looking world – a point Damon’s character hammers home by burning the wood chips from a team member’s crucifix. Science wins then, but the victory would have been all the sweeter if the temperature on MARS and at NASA had been permitted to rise by a single degree.