The Martian has a unique quality to it. On the one hand, it’s a predictably tedious clunker with an admittedly satisfying, even rousing daredevil finale. But on the other, it deserves some credit for its relentless commitment to nerdy mundanity and for being a fearlessly optimistic piece of scientific process art.
The movie’s full of deliberately brutal nerdy snark, bad jokes and self-conscious and unself-conscious admirers of The Lord of the Rings and Marvel and the like. There’s some charm to it. What’s more, Scott dedramatizes things; there is no antagonist of any kind, no love interest anywhere in sight, Damon’s character rarely loses composure, and his team back on Earth spouts witticisms as their man is stranded millions of miles away. It’s all in a nerd’s day’s work. When the snark subsides, we are left with the fascinating minutia of scientific problem-solving–the (de-)drama of confident ingenuity. We learn how to make water on Mars (ha! if Damon had only known–the sucker!), how to communicate with Earth using only a rotating camera, how to grow potatoes in Martian soil, etc., etc. I could’ve done without the boring scenes of actors narrating emails and communiqués (someone should’ve looked at Non-Stop (Collet-Serra, 2014) or Sherlock (2010- ) or something and learned how to represent text in visually stimulating ways), and the mushy serendipity of US-China scientific collaboration in the movie to some extent betrays its commitment to hard-nosed causality.
Still, a curious movie, where Ridley Scott does his best imitation of Robert Zemeckis, for better and for worse.