Here’s the thing about The Martian (which I saw this past weekend): Matt Damon is not the problem. I wouldn’t say this film has 99 problems, but whatever number it does have (and it definitely has a nonzero number of problems), Mr. Damon is not really one of them.
Spoilers follow, of course.
This film is lovingly shot, has some occasionally fun dialogue, and has an interesting premise. The Martian vistas are stunning, the science is both fun and interesting, and the actors do their jobs (some of them bringing, honestly, much bigger guns to the fight than are necessary). I did wonder if the main reason they cast Sean Bean in the film (and he did his usual good work) was for the sake of the LOTR nerd joke late in the story. This is a film with a lot going for it. It’s easy to see how well they spent their budget.
It still fell resoundingly and determinedly flat for me, perhaps because (and I suspect this might sound strange) it had too much going for it. Perhaps a better way to say it is this: The Martian is a movie that looks good while it entertains, but it could have been ever so much more — and its structure, I think, is largely to blame. The Martian is built to use a certain set of action conventions to build tension and sustain some sort of drama in the narrative, and it hits at least an 8 on the Jan de Bont Scale; this is both an important part of its entertainment value and, I think, its biggest failing.
What’s the Jan de Bont Scale? It’s my personal measurement of how closely a film sticks to the basic narrative framework of Speed (1994). Speed is (as far as I’m concerned) the very model for every action movie of its kind (what the late Roger Ebert called “bruised forearm” movies) that came after it. It built tension through a set of escalating action sequences, endangering a large cast (using several bits of character shorthand to make the potential victims personable, to make the stakes higher) and interspersing the immediate danger with offstage work (so to speak) done by others to save the day. The Martian does pretty much the same thing, only this time around, the bad guy isn’t a scenery-chomping Dennis Hopper — it’s a combination of physics and bureaucracy.
Hey, at least Jeff Daniels didn’t get blown up this time! (um…spoiler alert?)
Here’s the main problem: Ridley Scott isn’t Jan de Bont, and doesn’t do Jan de Bont nearly as well as Jan de Bont does. Scott’s visual language and sense of scale is usually much larger, and doesn’t play de Bont’s favorite cinematic trick of using character reactions to boost tension. So why is this film doing a super-nerdy Speed impression, when it could have been something more?
The shape of that “something more” is visible in the setup: man trapped alone on distant planet, initially without the ability to communicate with home. The best moments in the film (and some of the credit here definitely belongs to Damon) are when the audience gets to see what’s at stake — the main character, faced with the near-certainty of his own death, has to figure out how to do something about it, to fight to live anyway. A better version of this story would leave out everything happening at NASA, indeed everything happening anywhere else but Mars. We would be stuck with Damon on Mars, not knowing whether or not anyone might be coming back, not knowing (even once communication is established) whether or not efforts to help might work. Cut some of the diary-and-voiceover stuff, and let us struggle along with the character, with the tension built out of fear and uncertainty of rescue from his point of view rather than trying to ram home the urgency of the whole business through engineering timelines. Take a page out of the Mad Max playbook and let the action tell the story — not by blowing things up, of course, but by following what happens and what must be done, never knowing whether or not anything will work.
Also: Damon’s little epilogue at NASA about solving the next problem would be entirely unnecessary in better-structured story, one in which the experience he describes was the centerpiece of the story instead of an excuse to build tension with action set pieces.
A large part of what makes the Speed formula work is that the stakes are high, but not too high — we all know someone’s going to die, but we also know it’s not going to be the protagonist. We all know that once Problem A is solved, the next step is always Problems B through n. We all know that even near the end, there will be one more thing, and we all know it’ll work out by the time the credits roll.
Take that away from The Martian, and suddenly it’s a much more interesting movie, with much higher stakes.
Also, as a postscript: The shots of people gathered in public squares to watch news reports about the Martian rescue are…well, bizarre. Why are they there? Do people really do that anymore? At best, they highlight (perhaps accidentally) the vacuous nature of “news” in the 24-hour news cycle.