Levitt Reviews “The Martian” (B)


“The Martian” is the most recent in the rash of survivalist flicks where one man or woman must use their ingenuity and fortitude to survive against a cruel and unforgiving environment.  Films like The Castaway and Gravity also pit their lead largely sole, character against a war of wits and humanity against mother nature or in this case “Space Nature” to stay alive.

I think they key to a major factor on whether a lot of these films being successful is the vulnerability of the lead actor. They must convey the loneliness and desperation of their struggle for us to totally emphasize and get invested in their struggle. Unfortunately, Matt Damon the film’s star and the lone astronaut who is marooned  on Mars after a horrific storm, is known for having a cool calm demeanor on screen. “The Martian is no exception.  Damon is, in large part, missing the  “oh shit, I’m alone on a desolate planet factor”  Its a little like watching Denzel Washington try to play helpless on screen. It doesn’t totally work.   The film needed someone with more vulnerability, more emotional subtlety in their performance. In addition in many scenes Matt Damon is seen being snarky (railing against disco etc) which, while funny and made him more likable removed me from the complete seriousness of his situation.

Matt Damon was, of course, thought of for this film for his star power but I think Damon should have refused for the good of the movie.  I think Matt Damon is too interested in being in control in the acting projects he chooses i.e. his ego wont allow him to play someone inept or deeply flawed.  In any film he chooses,  he has to show he’s the best, the most qualified character in the film. He played a card genius in Rounders, top CIA Assasin in The Bourne Films, in Good Will Hunting he was a math-genius janitor and Even in this film, he’s the self proclaimed best botanist on Mars!

Damon’s screen strength/arrogance also doesn’t play well when you consider that his crew has to go completely (and a bit unrealistically rogue, taking them a year off course, risking their lives, and in complete contradiction to direct orders) to complete a daring rescue of him in space.  Damon’s demeanor, to me, doesn’t inspire loyalty.  I had the same problem with Damon in “Saving Private Ryan” when after he was rescued by Hanks and his men,…they came all this way just to save Matt Damon?! and too top it off, he didn’t even seem to care about their sacrifice.

Because Damon is so unpreturbed throughout much of the film its Its up to the other characters to show their worried. Other actors particularly NASA engineer Mindy Park (played by mackenzie Davis) does an excellent job and conveying the nervousness and range of emotion necessary to be empathatic.  I think she should have played the marooned astronaut and left Damon to play some unconcerned Nasa bureaucrat instead.

The first half of the film the action is told in large part of Damon making a video diary of his daily life on the planet, gradually by degrees is able to grow food (whattaya know he just happens to be a botanist…that’s a lucky break!) and gradually able to communicate with nasa. Soon, complications, technical failures, and the barren-ness and oxygen less enviroment take their toll.  At times things do get a bit slow in the action as Damon is forced constantly to confront adversity and work each situation through in a math-like way to arrive at a solution. Soon, I almost wanted some kind of Mars Monster to come out of a crater and attack Damon to relieve the monotony and so Damon could bust out some cool Judo moves or something.  Instead there are long stretches of Damon planting crops, rationing food, and although interesting a documentary way were at times a bit dull.

I did enjoy the secondary characters in the film, Damon’s crewmates especially “Rick Martinez”, Michael Pena, are fun and Chwietol Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Vincent Kapoor, head of NASA’s Mars missions, conveys the humanity largely missing from Damon.   Less successful I thought was Kristin Wiig who seemed out of place in a cast of otherwise earnest actors. She’s not horrible but always looks like she’s holding back something that she thinks is funny so took me a little out of the action.

In the final analysis, I liked The Martian Okay but aside from Matt Damon’s casting, I generally have a problem with all vehicles which are largely one man shows like The Castaway with Tom Hanks. To be completely engaged on all cylinders , to borrow from aircraft jargon, I prefer more conflict, friction/clashing of wills, multi-person viewpoints to get lost and feel a stake in the action.  One actor, no matter how gifted, cannot frankly play all the sides of the same issue and, in this case, if you’re not totally in love with Matt Damon, you won’t be totally in love with “The Martian”.


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