'The Martian' gives Matt Damon's spaceman too much space (review)

Ridley Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's hit novel is nerdy fun but lacks the dramatic rocket fuel to really blast off.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Watch this: 'The Martian' review: Matt Damon gets marooned on Mars

After "Saving Private Ryan", you'd think people would be sick of having to go and rescue Matt Damon, but he's gone and wandered off on his own again in "The Martian". Here's our review. (We've avoided discussing specific plot points, but if you want to stay completely spoiler-free maybe come back when you've seen it.)

Directed by Ridley Scott, the film faithfully adapts the hit sci-fi novel by Andy Weir, which started out as a free e-book. Hailed for its scientific accuracy and gloriously nerdy attention to detail, the book relates the science required for a man to survive alone on Mars.

In the film, Matt Damon is astronaut Mark Watney, accidentally marooned on Mars after a sandstorm forces his team to abandon their mission. Space being quite a big place, Watney knows he has to stay alive until the next scheduled mission arrives from Earth. The problem is, that's in four years time -- and he has supplies for only a matter of days.

Fortunately, Watney is smart. Very smart. And back on Earth are a whole mission control-full of smart people, played by familiar faces including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Donald Glover. The biggest pleasure of the film then is watching smart people doing smart stuff to tackle insurmountable odds.

The film does a pretty good job of showing the science of the situation without getting bogged down in the details. But as much nerdy fun as all the science-y stuff is, the most gripping moments come when Watney faces a problem so ridiculously basic it should be laughable -- except in the deadly environment of Mars even a simple problem can end him.

7 things 'The Martian' gets right about science (pictures)

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This brings us to the film's biggest problem. For all the numbers thrown around about how long Watney has to survive and how hard it will be, the film fails to impress on us just how hostile Mars is. This is a place where humans simply aren't meant to exist. This is place where you're an inch or a second away from horrible, sudden, pointless death. The opening sandstorm makes good use of 3D to show us what a harsh environment it can be, but after that there's very little sense of menace.

Compare that to "Gravity", where Sandra Bullock's stranded astronaut can't take a breath, can't think, can't pause for a second because space is constantly trying to kill her in three different ways. You come out of "Gravity" feeling like you've just been through a washing machine. But as Scott's camera sweeps across endless majestic russet vistas for a sedate two hours and twenty minutes, "The Martian" gives Watney all the time in the world. Apart from an early gory moment of self-surgery we never really feel the fragility of our hero's existence.

The cosiness of the environment is reinforced by a strange running gag about there being no other music but disco on the base, which seems to have been included solely to include "I Will Survive" on the soundtrack.

Watney cracks jokes that ground the science talk, but his indomitable humour leaches the drama out of his character. He never suffers the desperate loneliness of space portrayed so well by Sam Rockwell in "Moon". He has no character flaw to overcome to find the will to survive like James Franco in "127 Hours". And he has no-one at home to care about, like Tom Hanks in "Apollo 13", "Cast Away" or "Captain Phillips".

Where "Captain Phillips", for instance, ratchets up the tension by wresting the hero away from familiar territory, "The Martian" never seems to put Watney anywhere that he isn't able to control. Where "Cast Away" sells the effects of isolation with that gut-punch shot of an emaciated, tangle-bearded Hanks suddenly replacing the barrel-chested Hanks we know and love, "The Martian" never convincingly portrays the physical toll taken on Watney. Where "Cast Away" depicts the debilitating effects of loneliness by making a beloved character out of a volleyball with a handprint on it, "The Martian" never explores the emotional toll of the situation.

That's right: it needs a Wilson.

Nerdy fun, "The Martian" is a love letter to the joy of science, discovery and pulling together to solve problems. But it leaves out of its payload the danger and drama that are the rocket fuel required to make a film blast off.

"The Martian" lands in theatres in Australia and the UK on September 30, followed by the US on October 2.

Watch this: Ridley Scott and Matt Damon on making of 'The Martian'