Gushing with the sort of pop science that makes readers wish they’d paid more attention in school, Andy Weir’s breakout novel The Martian relies on one big advantage, its protagonist’s persona as an Internet darling. Conveying professional swagger checked by self-deprecation, a cheap sense of humor, and a very pop cultural-friendly interpretation of what it means to be a nerd, astronaut Mark Watney is Bill Nye, Adam Savage, and xkcd all rolled into one, very approachable with a touch of political incorrectness – the right kind of political incorrectness, more importantly. How much of this persona stems from Weir himself might be easy to conjecture, given the genesis of the novel as a free serial on his website, as well as how the novel’s episodic structure informs its origin as a single hypothetical scenario in need of a friendly tour guide, but whatever the truth of the matter is, Watney’s character is the reason behind the novel’s wild success and instantaneous cinematic adaptation, turning what could’ve been a long-winded bore into the sort of fist-pumping adventure that turns even the most ignorant readers into disciples in science.
Unfortunately, Watney The Friendly Tour Guide is at the same time the greatest limitation of The Martian, and proves to be an insurmountable obstacle for screenwriter Drew Goddard in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the book. With Watney stranded on Mars after to getting lost in a storm during an emergency evacuation, the planet itself is the big bad of the story, but outside of the man vs. nature A-plot, there’s little in the way of human drama. Everyone is just so likable, or at the very least, inoffensive. Watney goes to great lengths to absolve his crew mates of blame, and Jessica Chastain’s Commander Lewis’s guilt is so tremendous that her situation is arguably more worrying than Watney’s at times. Jeff Daniels’s NASA Director Teddy Sanders is the closest Weir or Goddard ever come to assigning an antagonist, and it’s all due to the character’s principled stance to play the devil’s advocate when the only options on the table are bad ones.
On the bright side, Matt Damon makes for an easy person to root for, and he reliably brings real emotion to a person in obvious distress. He’s the center of one of Scott’s most eclectic casts, assembled from a couple dozen easily recognizable faces from all backgrounds, the better to spread out the broad comedy and drama he’s going for. An easygoing tone is nicely achieved, at the expense of much real tension or actual hard decisions. There is never a closed-room scene discussing the practicality of just letting Watney die, for instance. The story encompasses only the most optimistic tenets of rationalism while championing the virtues of selflessness and cooperation. Pessimism is as useless to Weir’s narrative as it is to Watney’s survival.
One curiosity having nothing to do the source material is the difficulty in spotting the – for lack of a better term – Ridley Scottiness in it all. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who helped envision the barren surroundings of Scott’s Prometheus and Exodus: Gods and Kings, returns to produce stunning Martian vistas, but aside from the expected visual grandeur, Scott’s broodiness is nonexistent. This is his goofiest movie since Matchstick Men, and, most astonishing for a sci-fi epic, it scrapes past his tendency for bloat. Weir’s story needed a light touch, so it works out for the best. This marks yet another new direction for Scott, and a good one at that, following a very inconsistent decade.
Goddard does good by the novel, punching up Weir’s functional dialogue and trimming the fat where necessary, but he struggles to turn the cheeky one-liners and cardboard bickering among the earthbound characters into anything more significant. The Martian is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified story problem, albeit one entertaining and spirited enough to hide the didacticism lurking beneath the surface. It insulates itself from much criticism on that point by making every member of its cast a resourceful genius, and it strives to be interesting by teaching us things we don’t know. It could’ve been so much more, however, if it more closely examined how humans work, instead of idealizing how they should.