The Martian

I saw Ridley Scott’s The Martian as my final film of 2015, and it encapsulated 2015 in film well for me, because I found it mostly meh.

The basics: a 141-minute Robinsonade about a guy that gets left for dead on Mars; the next mission won’t arrive for four years, antics ensue. It’s based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Andy Weir. The screenplay was written by Drew Goddard with the intention that he’d direct, but then he got the chance to direct Sinister Six, and direction shifted to Scott.

I don’t know if or how this shift in direction colored the final film, but it’s most definitely not a typical Ridley Scott film. It has none of the darkness of Alien or atmosphere of Prometheus. It’s much more of a cheery attempt at wittiness with a dose of ha-ha funny bits by Matt Damon, a typical Hollywood overcoming adversity vehicle with enough light-hearted cheer and a typical plot curve to keep Christmas audiences entertained.

The science aspect of the film was decent. They spent a lot of time working with NASA, trying to get the technology and astrophysics aspects of the story correct, and that seemed to work. (The film passed the Neil deGrasse Tyson test, which seems to be the bar for these sorts of things.) I think I had some minor quibbles on it, like the fact that the film put great plot priority on the shortage of food and water, but the Mars station seemed to have endless air and power. (Yes, solar cells, but if I was stuck there, I’d probably start shutting off interior lights.) And Damon is a perpetually dopy actor for me, and I couldn’t believe he would be a genius botanist academic. He also kept a totally ripped six-pack body while eating a starvation diet of only potatoes for like a year, which seemed unlikely.

I did not like the sanitized, high-design aesthetic of the film’s space stations and mission control interiors. It was way too slick and artificial-looking, like bad CGI from the early 2000s. These were supposed to be ships built by the lowest bidder, hurtled through the stresses and wear of space with people living in them, and they looked as perfect as a European modern art museum, not a single scratch or smudge on them. This was incredibly uncharacteristic of Ridley Scott. I realize Alien was a long time ago, and the intention was different, but look at the two back-to-back and it’s striking.

I also did not care for the overly generic plot. The film basically took the most crowd-pleasing parts of Gravity, Armageddon, and Apollo 13, and threw them in a choose-your-own-adventure story. Taking a film and swapping out this for that like a Lego set might be entertaining to the masses, but it’s ultimately unchallenging and bland. This was the kind of film where I immediately knew the first and second attempts at a task would fail, because the third would be the payoff. I don’t expect huge plot twists and payoffs, but this formulaic writing makes a film have no real repeat value, which was the case here.

The film was ultimately successful at the box office. I’m sure Star Wars stepped on the back end of their campaign. I actually thought the film was still in theaters, and was surprised to see it had already moved to VOD. I’m still used to the old days when a video came out on VHS for rental half a year later.

I didn’t hate the film, but didn’t love it, either. That sums up my entire 2015 experience with film, where everything seemed to play it safe and go through the motions. Without digging through notes, I can’t think of what my 2015 standout movie would be. Anyway, I hope 2016 picks up.