When coming to write about The Martian, Ridley Scott's space/disaster/survival movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars, it's hard to resist the impulse to draw comparisons. The Martian is perhaps best-described as a cross between Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away. Its focus on the engineering challenges that survival on Mars poses for hero Mark Watney, and on the equally thorny problem of retrieving him before his meager food supply runs out, is reminiscent of Ron Howard's Apollo 13. The fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon (and that the commander of his Mars mission is played by Jessica Chastain) immediately brings to mind Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. The problem with all these comparisons is not so much that they show up The Martian's flaws, as that they throw into sharper relief the very narrow limits of what it's trying to be.
Gravity and Cast Away, for example, are both, fundamentally, films about what it means to be human when you're cut off from the rest of humanity. The former uses its heroine's isolation as a metaphor for overcoming grief, with the emotional core of the film being the question of whether Sandra Bullock's character will choose to come back to life after the death of her daughter. Cast Away has no such metaphorical weight, but it too is deeply focused on the effect that isolation has on its character. There have been a lot of Wilson jokes over the last fifteen years, but when you go back to the movie itself, there's no denying that that device (and many others like it) brings home just how devastating the hero's loneliness is to him, and how much he has to struggle to hold on to hope and life. Both films have a soulfulness that The Martian never even reaches for.
That probably sounds like a criticism, but it's meant more as a statement of fact. Based on the self-publishing phenomenon by Andy Weir (which I haven't read), The Martian is exactly what it sets out to be, and quite successful at that. My favorite bits of the otherwise rather silly and maudlin Interstellar were the moments in which its astronaut characters acted like scientists and engineers, trying to work with their limited fuel, time, and supplies to come up with the best solutions to their problems. The Martian is an entire movie made up of those scenes, and it is genuinely thrilling to watch its characters--the irrepressible Watney, and the dedicated but harried hordes of NASA engineers--work their way around seemingly insurmountable obstacles. If nothing else, it's gratifying to have this tangible proof that one doesn't need an overegged, melodramatic personal story to create tension and stakes--smart people trying to work their way through a really tough problem is more than enough drama to keep the audience hooked for 140 minutes.
If there is a criticism to be made against The Martian--and again, I'm not entirely certain that it rises to that level--it is that once those 140 minutes are over, the film doesn't leave much behind it. It's the sort of movie that you enjoy tremendously while you're watching it, and then forget almost as soon as it's over. A movie that is incredibly tense and exhilarating, but which doesn't have a single memorable line, scene, visual, or set-piece. (Some of that might be laid at the feet of Scott, a pedestrian director who has been coasting off the double whammy of Blade Runner and Alien for thirty years, but who hasn't produced anything to match those two movies in all that time. His work on The Martian is never more than serviceable, even when called upon to depict an alien planet or the emptiness of space.)
Most importantly, The Martian seems genuinely uninterested in its title character. Damon's general charisma and likability (which were used to such excellently wrongfooting effect in Interstellar) do a lot to humanize a character who might otherwise have seemed arrogant and standoffish, but in a way that's a point against the movie. It should strike us as a lot stranger than it does that Mark doesn't seem to miss anyone during his two-year solo stay on Mars, that his interactions with NASA and his crew are friendly but never intimate, that even when sending a message to his parents he never rises above platitudes, or seems to feel true sorrow and longing. It would, of course, have been possible to tell a story about a man who is fundamentally unsociable and unlikable, but who is still human, and still experiences the same urge towards survival, and even human contact, as the rest of us. But The Martian, far from telling that story, is simply taking it as a given that a problem-solver is all Mark is. It never asks what effect it has on him to be more alone than any human being in history, to live in constant danger of death, to have to produce all the necessities of human existence with his own hands. The film wants us to admire Mark's can-do spirit and problem-solving attitude, and these are indeed admirable traits, but it never wonders what it does to a person to be forced to see life as nothing but a series of problems to be solved, nor what the cost to his humanity will be once he returns to Earth.
Apollo 13, the film that The Martian most closely resembles, has been frequently criticized for its decision to overdramatize some of the beats of an already extremely dramatic crisis--claiming that astronaut Ken Mattingly was so upset over being bumped from the mission that he left the command center to drink and sulk, or that the astronauts aboard the damaged vessel went into an emotional tailspin over their predicament. The Martian, with its surface-level emotional beats, could be taken as a rebuke to that failure of nerve. But the fact is that Apollo 13 is a deserved classic that has stayed fresh and worth watching for twenty years, and as much as I enjoyed The Martian, I truly doubt that it will have the same kind of longevity. I don't mean to say by this that Ron Howard-style sentimentality is the only way to go, but I think the inevitable conclusion of all the comparisons begged by The Martian is that if you haven't got a good handle on your story's humanity, you're not going to create something lasting. It's possible that another director, willing to be less true to his source, could have found the humanity in The Martian's story. But as it stands the movie is incredibly enjoyable, absolutely worth watching, and incapable of climbing out of the shadow of the better, or even just more interesting, movies that it recalls.