Two halves: a “Science” half and a disaster half. One of its successes (or, at least, the successes of the tv edit that I saw) was a gradual transition between the two (around the point at which David Bowie comes in / bilateral preparation for the rescue mission begins).
After an encouragingly brisk start, the first half is a very inefficient film about spartan, survivalist efficiency. I count only ten somewhat-to-majorly important characters but at least twice as many are introduced with terminal txt captions (which also list job titles) – shoots for documentary of key players, instead contributes to the uneasy sense that we apparently need a walking tour of the plot. This sense is continually pushed by running exposition, mostly Damon’s but also from NASA quarterbacks (was reminded again of the Kurosawa Every Frame A Painting, on visual storytelling c/ Avengers) (the exposition also describes what’s going on right now; cf Inception with its delayed-gratification rewards for paying attention). This is where the Science comes in; I like TM‘s attempt to dramatically deploy the physical curiosities of our universe as directly as possible, though this needn’t have meant getting MD to say “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!” (any doubt that this is for the Nerds disappears with the joke about Boromir. The sci-fi/fantasy CatDog declares a brief truce.)
Unless you like Neil deGrasse Tyson the exposition will get on your nerves. Worth a look from a literary-historical perspective, though (I see you, Ridley). Given that The Martian is Robinson Crusoe (as indeed are lots of stories) the ship’s log is consistent with Robinson’s own autobiographical scribblings (likewise just about the first task he undertakes upon waking up stranded, surrounded by raw material but with no companionship and no long-term hope). Defoe wrote in the tradition of protestant autobiography, which drips with the anxiety to critically self-analyse in order to construe one’s own tribulations as a dark night of the soul before inevitable and exemplary redemption. MD’s tone, in contrast, is immediately victorious (see: “I’m gonna science the shit out of it!”) which puts The Martian in the lineage of recent post-Musk sci-fi, one place along from Interstellar (if Brian Chippendale’s review is anything to go by, which it might not be) (See, in contrast, 2001 on the abortive impossibility of technological transcendence, and Gravity writing back to that with humility in the face of space’s inhuman physical hostility). This confidence is The Martian‘s distinct angle – one which, again, charges the scientific push – but it also short-circuits any existentialist introspection from Damon in his log entries (of which there is little, unlike Moon or the big beast, T’s Solaris. [M‘s Gerty is an ingenuous rerouting of the exposition problem, though the film admittedly (probably) requires less in the first place]). C/ Robinson Crusoe, whose autobiography enables him to set his own house in order in a more philosophical sense than that of resolving to tape over a hole made by accidentally exploding a depressurisation chamber. I’ll take fear and trembling over the Martian Dream (checkmate athetits).
The second half – the disaster half – is more successful (telling that the tv-edit appeared to have cut down on later exposition as if impatiently hurrying up the transition). Ejiofor is a little Mega Shark at times but Sean Bean was surprisingly effective as a moralistic counterweight to Jeff Daniels’ micro-managing Machiavel. Donald Glover does the Q thing well too. The rescue trajectory is much less innovative than the I-Fucking-Love-Science-cosmic-humanism of the first hour (it’s classic Ridley Scott, or Independence Day or anything else like that). Some of that asphyxiating 2001 frailty creeps back in through the technological peril – see the tense and understated supply-shuttle docking scene and even the sub-Gravity space-tagliatelle finale.
Consistent throughout is Scott’s showcased world-building (concede all quibbles before the post-podracing space suits and the humming martian desert-scapes) and a likeable if unremarkable turn from Damon (remember True Grit?). Fine overall; a good alternative to boyish Abrams over-saturation and a temporarily passable one to Duncan Jones’ smarter, more dextrous imaginative flights.
Don’t watch: Prometheus, any other Scott film since American Gangster. Do watch: Moon, Gravity, 2001, even Contact. Unless you want to be a space scientist.