Martian is the happiest Ridley Scott movie ever. For one, he has picked the hopeful theme of Mars becoming habitable. (No spoilers here, since you must have seen the trailer.) Then he’s picked happy face Matt Damon (as Mark Watney) with his can-do attitude as his go-to guy who is stranded in Mars. His crewmates abandon him following a huge storm, presuming him to be dead on the planet. What’s worse: the antennae they use to touch base with planet Earth has broken in the storm and passed through his stomach, and the only music he can find to keep him occupied happens to be his colleague Martinez’ disco music (which he hates). All existential jokes that are coming into your head right now have been steered clear off (to our disappointment). Instead, Scott goes into a lengthy explanation about the science behind Matt Damon’s peculiar situation. This is a classic case of too much research, and every painstaking detail that they may have found out to support their plot better goes in as dialogue right before a crisis (involving the traditional booms and blasts that must be a part of every Hollywood blockbuster), fizzing out any tension built up in the previous scenes. Scott has been ridiculed enough for the sombre orchestral tones that are an inevitable part of his movies, and this time on he has tapped into Matt Damon’s comic timing and country/folksy tunes to balance out the depressing atmosphere that botanist Wattney might just get sucked into at being the only person on an as yet uninhabited planet.
The first half of the film involves botanist/astronaut Watney operating on himself, trying to make water fusing oxygen with hydrogen, and managing to build a green house to attempt growing food on his own, until NASA comes to rescue him. The methods he employs to establish contact with Earth are also ingenius, and the moment he can text with NASA (who has turned the entire astronaut disappearance-reappearance into a PR-media circus) is genuinely a tear-jerker. It is the second half that makes us lose our attention, with its repetitive NASA drama, and Matt Damon’s by-now hackneyed humour. (Him growing a beard, and calling himself a space pirate does little to hold our attention after a point.) The rest of the characters in the film are drab and half-heartedly written; Kate Mara has been wasted in a mostly mute role (she is required to use her intense look at the camera from time to time), and Jessica Chastain (Mellisa Lewis) is a muted leader of the astronaut pack doesn’t seem very into her role as one of the ultimate life-saving heroes in the film. Other plot tropes that are second nature to Hollywood films begin to cloy on us, as does the informative lecturing that the boring NASA scientists and astronauts are wont to break into from time to time. An exception here is the role played by Chewtel Ejiofor (Venkat Kapoor), the dashing head of the mission not below a few one-liners and heroic acts. (We are uncertain however, about how comfortable we are with the situation where a brown person has been represented by a black man).
Don’t get me wrong: the film is meticulously planned with good punch-lines, dialogues and breathtaking (if slightly common cinematography) of the Wild West refashioned as Mars with a tint, but we still found our attention flailing after the first half got over. Yes, it is better than Prometheus, and it received wide praise at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but go for it only if you are a science fiction/science geek who wants to watch a hypothesis on how food can be grown on a possibly hospitable planet. If you are none of the above (and there is no shame in admitting this, I hope), then it becomes a bewildering science lesson taught by an earnest but sadly boring professor, whose enthusiasm you do not share.