The Martian is a curious beast: a throwback to the can-do optimism of the American pioneer spirit wrapped up in a pachydermian rat's race of bureaucracy and PR spin, an ingenious B-team sci-fi drowned in an all-star big-budget extravaganza, a film that asks serious questions about what we want to do about outer space and wants to give serious answers to it while keeping it light-footed and spirited.
It's also yet another film in British director Ridley Scott's post-Gladiator renaissance as Hollywood's reliable go-to blockbuster auteur - never mind that his artistic track record since that impressive, gritty return to the halcyon days of the sword-and-sandal epic has been seriously spotty. To ease your minds with no further ado: The Martian is an efficient time-passer, a likeable, wholesome entertainment for the entire family, but hardly in the same league of Mr. Scott's earliest classics such as Alien and Blade Runner (it's closer in league and tone to the intriguing misfire that was The Counselor, but it's no Prometheus - and that wasn't a classic either).
The key issue seems to me very simple: the adaptation of Andy Weir's best-seller, smartly scripted by Drew Goddard (he of Cloverfield and The Cabin in the Woods), is an avowed exercise in genre tropes that posits what Robinson Crusoe on Mars could be with a wholesome, all-American tinkerer and pioneer, a sort of futuristic MacGyver, as the star. Matt Damon's Mark Watney, left behind for dead on the surface of the red planet when a freak storm forces the abort of a month-long research trip, has to deal with being alone and surviving until he can find a way to make contact with Earth and let them know he's still around.
And that is exactly the film's sweet spot: having a relatable, easy-going film star with a guy-next-door vibe and acting chops carry the "last-man-on-planet" adventure. The problem is that, for that film to emerge, a more fleet-footed, easier-going director was required; Mr. Scott is by his own nature a careful framer who is at his best when deploying the whole gamut of artistic universe creation, and something as small-scale as The Martian is less about precision and more about spontaneity. That is also why, despite the narrative requirement of regular cutaways to the team back on Earth who is setting up a rescue mission or to his fellow mission survivors on their long trek home, these scenes are mostly bloated and surplus to requirements, wasting a perfectly fine cast of character actors in supporting-role archetypes.
It's in Mr. Damon's nicely calibrated cheerfulness, his resourcefulness and determination to survive at any cost occasionally marred by the realization of his immense loneliness, that resides the beating heart of this overlong but not unpleasant film.
US, United Kingdom, 2015, 140 minutes
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, Chen Shu, Eddy Ko, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by Ridley Scott; written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel The Martian by Andy Weir; cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; composer Harry Gregson-Williams; designer Arthur Max; costumes Janty Yates; editor Pietro Scalia; visual effects supervisor Richard Stammers; produced by Simon Kinberg, Mr. Scott, Michael Schaefer, Aditya Sood and Mark Huffam, for Twentieth Century Fox, Kinberg Genre Films and Scott Free Productions in association with TSG Entertainment Finance
Screened September 28th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon, distributor press screening