It wants to be Apollo 13, or Silent Running, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or some Joss Whedon film (it’s not sure which one, but it probably involves Iron Man) and it ends up being none of them. And not in a good way. It’s a rather predictable, toned down, sprawling mess of half-hearted references and dialogue that’s meant to be funny, but consistently misses its mark.
Also, Matt Damon doesn’t know how to grow potatoes.
If you’re prepared for that, it’s an OK family film, and it’s vaguely hopeful to see Hollywood willing to trust that an audience will sit through something with a little bit of science in it and some periods where, compared to a lot of SF films these days, very little explodes.
I’d heard a lot about how good the science was and how great it was to see a real hard SF movie in our cinemas again.
If you have heard that too, I would not get your hopes up.
An American team of astronauts are on Mars, doing vaguely sciencey things, when a terrible dust storm brews up. They are forced to flee, but Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is hit by debris and lost in the storm. The team are forced to leave without him, believing him dead.
He’s not, though, and he is forced to survive on Mars, alone, with food that was only supposed to last 6 people 31 days. As it will take four years for a manned mission to come back to Mars to rescue him, this is not hopeful.
Fortuitously, along with the more likely protein bars, NASA have sent some potatoes. Matt Damon (it’s hard to think of the character as anything else, as Matt is playing the role the exact same way he has played every other role he has ever played) was the team botanist, so he sets about growing the potatoes in Martian soil and the team’s shrink-wrapped poop. Which massively expands his rations.
Meanwhile, NASA notices that he is not dead, and sets about trying to figure out how to get him back.
Gah, this film is such a mess. And it’s not just that, as someone who has grown potatoes, I know that the way Matt Damon goes about it is Just. Not. Going. To. Give. Those. Yields.
Permit me a brief digression to get it out of my system.
One thing anyone who has seriously tried to grow food learns very early on is that you do not put fresh manure on your crops. We’re not even gonna touch on the issue of what the Martian soil may or may not be like. Let’s just focus on the poo. Matt Damon takes dried, shrink-wrapped poo, adds water, and plants the potatoes directly in the poo.
Oh. My. God. So many things are wrong.
Firstly: you only put well-rotted manure on your crops. Fresh manure will chemically burn roots and seedlings.
Secondly: you really don’t put fresh manure on potatoes. That shit is too high in nitrogen and your potatoes will either die or yield really poorly. Really, manure should only be used sparingly with potatoes, but fresh manure is a terrible idea.
I get that the Martian soil is an unknown, and using human poo as manure is not an entirely bad idea, but a botanist should have known better than to put fresh, completely-unrotted-because-they-removed-all-the-moisture-and-stored-it-in-sterile-oxygen-less-freezing-conditions manure directly on potatoes.
Thirdly: he literally put the individual potatoes directly down on their own individual piles of poo. It hurts. At least mix it in with the Martian soil, Matt, just a bit?
Fourthly: he complains of the smell of the poo. Frozen, dry poo would not smell.
Fifthly: why are NASA sending potatoes to Mars? Those are heavy fresh vegetables. Every ounce counts and is worth a lot in expensive fuel. YES, if you needed to grow something fast in a bad environment to do it, potatoes are great. They’re incredibly easy to grow. But NASA would never send them.
Sixthly: the potatoes would have been treated with growth retardant. Just as potatoes you buy from the supermarket are. And they only have to go to the supermarket. They don’t have to make it to Mars without sprouting. I’m not saying your couldn’t make them sprout, potatoes love to sprout, but you wouldn’t get the kind of yields Matt does.
Seventhly: he didn’t chit them. Like, at all. For good yields you need to let your sprouting potatoes sit in the sun for a few weeks before planting so that they can store some energy before you put them in the soil. Again – you don’t have to, but Matt Damon becomes, like, this super potato farmer, with implausibly large yields, and his methods don’t show even basic knowledge about how to grow potatoes.
Eighthly: he doesn’t even earth his potatoes up. *shakes head sadly*
I’m just saying, when Matt Damon tells you he’s a great botanist and he’s going to do some ‘serious science’ you need to know that what he means is that he’s actually literally magic, and for some reason he’s using his magic on potatoes.
There are glimpses of the Ridley Scott who gave us Alien in this movie. I see him when Matt Damon is operating on himself, alone, in a blue jumpsuit, and I know that this is a deliberate reference to Silent Running, and the scene where Freeman Lowell operates on himself with nothing but a couple of robots for help. Silent Running is a film about a man stranded in space desperately trying to grow crops; as such, it’s the most relevant of the filmic references, although the reference is sadly brief and virtually meaningless. The moment I saw that the team wore blue jumpsuits under their spacesuits I got the reference, and the shots where Damon has to cut the suit off himself in order to operate reminded me forcefully of Lowell’s robot companions doing so for him. I can’t imagine most people got that, though, and as Damon’s botanist has none of the political fervour or eco-warrior sensibilities of Lowell, it does little but show The Martian up for its own lack of central message.
Similarly, although most sci-fi lovers will have caught the 2001 reference in the scene where one crew member is jogging in a rotating room, it’s nothing more than a hat-tip.
The race-against-time scrappy science aspects are reminiscent of Apollo 13, but, again, I’m sad to say that none of the claustrophobic tension and desperation of that classic is conveyed in The Martian. It’s just struggling to do too many other things at the same time.
You can’t have the scenic beauty and stillness and strangeness of 2001, and the tense claustrophobia of Apollo 13, and the wonder at nature and loneliness of Silent Running, and whatever it is this film is trying to do with humorous dialogue that was sadly lost on me. These things just don’t sit together properly in the same film.
Similarly, although there are female astronauts, some in positions of power, there are no female characters who have any screen-time prominence. Same for people of colour. All the main roles go to white men, as usual. I’m done with wondering at the ingenuity and scientific prowess of a white man stranded on a
desert island space craft planet whatever who somehow manages to be a botanist and an engineer and any other damn thing he puts his mind to. It’s boring. I’ve seen it a million times, and, significantly, I have seen it in better films.
Incidentally, the scene where Matt Damon, the white man, declares he has colonised Mars, felt particularly insensitive of the kind of critiques that have been levelled at white colonial science fiction in recent years.
So while it’s great to see roles given to Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong , Michael Peña, and Mackenzie Davis, I come away feeling that a potentially great cast was wasted. Because whilst there was a clear attempt to diversify, they didn’t do it by giving big, meaty roles to women and people of colour. They did it by adding roles, making sure that the majority of the screen time went to the white male stars, Matt Damon and Jeff Daniels. Granted, I haven’t read the book and I don’t know how many of these characters come directly from the book, but part of adapting a film from a book is knowing how to condense. It’s not at all clear why we needed to have all of Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kirsten Wiig, and Jeff Daniels’s characters. They clutter the screen and leave little time for any of the individual characters to be developed.
And the less said about the scene where Donald Glover’s character explains the basic concept of a slingshot maneuver to NASA’s senior people, using Kirsten Wiig’s character as a voiceless physical stand-in for an inanimate object – whom one of the men click’s his pen off the forehead of! – the better.
As I began this review by saying: this film is a mess. No one has time to develop a full character on screen except Matt Damon, and Matt Damon… plays Matt Damon.
Go to see this film to turn your brain off and see some pretty shots of Mars. Don’t go to see this film if you want hard-hitting and thought-provoking science fiction. Get some DVDs of Apollo 13 and Silent Running and have yourself a night in with the best parts of what this film was trying to ape instead.