Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the third (and hopefully not the last) space-based sci-fi epic in as many years. Compared to its predecessors Gravity and Interstellar, Scott’s film is refreshingly light. Much of that credit goes to lead Matt Damon whose casual charisma helps us forget that much of his screen-time is spent alone. Another actress who effortlessly captures our attention, Sandra Bullock was tasked with similar duties in a similar film two years ago. In Gravity Bullock finds herself suddenly alone in an impossible scenario. But unlike Bullock who plays her role with somber and remorseful overtones, Damon spends his time making jokes and “science[ing] the shit” out of things. To Bullock’s credit, her performance in Alfonso Cuaron’s film from two years ago matched her character and the film perfectly. The same goes for Damon who serves as a linchpin to a cast of mostly interesting characters the majority of whom command a short cut of screen-time.
Now if Gravity plays it straight and serious, Interstellar overloads the frame with intense visuals and complicated yet flimsy dialogue. The Martian takes cues from both while taking strides in different directions. I honestly can’t say how much of credit for the film’s structure belongs to Andy Weir who wrote the book on which the film is based. In many ways the film does feel like an adaptation given its overall abbreviated feeling which stems partially from the aforementioned cast of characters with little screen-time as well as the constant shifting from one location to the next. It is easy to imagine a wholly different film which takes place entirely on Mars and follows Damon’s attempts to survive. That might take away Damon’s quipiness a bit and we might have to watch him paint a face on a martian rock or flux capacitor like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Unlike that 2000 film, we spend much of our time in The Martian not with our stranded lead but watching the escape mission. The space based version of this rescue admittedly sounds more interesting than a sea based search and rescue mission we’d see in Castaway (I’m looking at you The Finest Hours). This shifting dynamic between Mars and Earth takes a bit away from the overall film structure but this popcorn movie probably couldn’t work with 90 minutes of Matt Damon playing in a red sandbox. As charming as he is, he’s no Tom Hanks.