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'Martian' flawed, but fun

By JOE OSTER/VN MOVIE CRITIC
On October 6, 2015

“The Martian” opens like a superhero origin story, and this is more or less what we get: a beautifully sleek, easy-to-access superhero-ish film that plays to the masses.

Matt Damon is likeable and funny enough as Mark Watney, an astronaut presumed dead by his crew and left behind stranded on Mars. But there’s no real substance.

I don’t want fun and optimistic Damon brimming with humor in my deserted-in-space movie. I want a desperate Damon who is trapped alone on an uninhabitable planet.

This should be obvious, but director Ridley Scott doesn’t really give us this, other than a few scenes here and there of Watney yelling at himself. Mostly, he’s just vlogging and making jokes about the technicality of actually being a space pirate.

This is fine, but it’s uneven.

These light, borderline-carefree moments should make me want to be right there with Watney in his foxhole. Those epic moments in empty space, where seemingly all is lost, should be heightened and enhanced by Watney’s charm.

But it isn’t. I feel next to nothing. The outcome is never in doubt. Watney will leave Mars and return to Earth.

This isn’t “Interstellar” or even “Gravity.” Even though those films ultimately had happy endings, it wasn’t adamant until nearly the final frame.

I can envision a film where McConaughey is stuck inside the ever-folding tesseract or Sandra Bullock is perpetually floating through outer space.

I understand that you need to be proactive and think positively if you hope to survive desertion on Mars, but, dammit, I want to feel something. That pressure, that disconnect, that guilt – give me anything.

It becomes your typical light PG-13 affair that is easily accessible to as many people as possible. The humor falling a little flat is a by-product of this.

This doesn’t feel like Ridley Scott, and in the right setting that could be refreshing. Here it just feels odd and a bit forced.  Scott never goes for the jugular. He “creatively” maneuvers his way around the film’s third use of the “f-word,” which would give “The Martian” an R rating by default.

Say what you will about 2012’s “Prometheus,” but at least with that film Scott goes for the kill.

In “The Martian,” Scott jumps through holes to make everything compact and accessible for everyone in the audience. This includes the use of the horribly cringe-worthy trope of the “um, in English please?!” joke when someone explains a process in total scientific terms.

Why is that in here?

Is Scott that daft or does he just not care anymore?

Any scientific event or process is both over-explained and under-explained. Multiple times a character makes a dangerous, highly complex, time-sensitive astrophysical suggestion to another uncertain character. After a brief silence, the character follows his/her suggestion with a  “No, don’t worry; the numbers check out!”

Thanks, man. I’m sure that they do.

“Why are you adding sugar?” Kate Mara asks another member of Watney’s crew who is building a small bomb.

Why are you asking an able chemist, who clearly knows what he’s doing? It’s a pointless question while your crewmember floats helplessly in space on a ship that is meagerly covered with a tarp for protection, lacking windows, controls or even a damn roof.

Donald Glover / Childish Gambino has his moments of silliness as Rich Purnell, an astrodynamicist who formulates the plan to retrieve Watney. Still, he’s just another trope, and his shtick begins to feel slightly forced and awkward.

Jeff Daniels just irks me as Teddy Sander, NASA’s director of operations. He is so one-note and gives off the impression that he wants to be this authoritative figure, but it falls flat. His character feels sinister, which makes no sense whatsoever.

This is contrary to everything I believe in, but I may be coming around on 3D. The glasses didn’t really bother me and I kind of love the depth it gave “The Martian” on screen.

Amid its flaws, “The Martian” is still enjoyable. Damon carries himself with enough confidence and bravado that it is difficult to look away. His performance makes it hard to dislike the film as a whole. Maybe it’s just my own fault for wanting a “Cast Away” blended with “Interstellar.”

I did get minor goosebumps at some points, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I’ll chalk it up to space films, in general. It’s not hard to effectively make a scene with a rocket launch or mission spliced with shots of the control room and the general public watching in suspense and then ultimately celebrating.

It’s almost always thrilling. It’s manipulative, but I don’t care.

Film is always manipulative on some level.

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