Watching The Martian won’t rot your teeth. Despite the sugary sentimentality, all the sweetness is artificial, derived scientifically from Martian potatoes and it’s just as well the sugar isn’t real, because otherwise this film could single-handedly cause a pandemic of obesity and diabetes.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with The Martian. It’s engaging, it’s entertaining and it offers a welcome break from the clichéd stereotype of technologists as one-dimensional, socially-dysfunctional obsessives. It’s exciting, it’s gripping and it’s visually magnificent. Even the cheesy 70s disco soundtrack works, though it comes across at times as a bit too self-aware, a bit too knowing, but it doesn’t offend and sometimes it provides a little chuckle of mild amusement.
Remarkably for Hollywood, the science is real, most of the time, and when it isn’t that’s because Scott chose to depart from reality as, for example when he decided not to bother replicating the low Martian gravity. He was right.
Matt Damon’s portrayal of Mark Watney, the stranded astronaut, is deadpan and laconic, as it should be. His video-diary – a good solution to the problem of an actor alone and strangely reminiscent of Spencer Tracy’s Fish – keeps us entertained until it doesn’t. Nobody wants to soldier through another Silent Running, with Bruce Dern (a botanist, of all things!) becoming ever more gloomy on his solitary journey into the void, but Watney’s relentless wise-cracking and the interminable joke about the bad disco music eventually grow as predictable as the endless Martian sands.
The problem is director Ridley Scott’s unremitting determination to make the viewer feel good at all times, using every cheesy plot device, every wise-cracking dialogue cliché and every grouchy-but-likeable Chief of Complicated Stuff. Not to mention the implausibly sympathetic Chinese space agency.
We didn’t know any of these people when the film ended. We didn’t even know Mark Watney, the central character, despite his existential predicament. We start out learning how smart he is, how tough and how resilient. He’s the first man to grow spuds on Mars. He’s a space pirate. But he doesn’t evolve, he doesn’t develop, he doesn’t change, apart from the spectacular physical wasting Matt Damon underwent.
None of the other characters is more than a cipher. The hard-ass PR lady. The gruff but kind-hearted head of NASA. The nerdy geek who sleeps all night in his office trying to think up a mathematical solution to the problem.
There wasn’t even a crudely-drawn bad guy to provide some dramatic tension.
It’s probably no accident that The Fonz pops up in the middle of the film for some added light relief because in the end that’s what the Martian is: Happy Days in Space.