I really enjoyed watching The Martian when I was sitting in the theater, but that love has faded quickly in the days since. There’s a high amount of amazing spectacle and suspense to keep audiences engaged but there’s an emotional emptiness to the film that makes it feel inconsequential in the long term and hurts the film. Ten minutes after I thought it was an Oscar contender released too early, two days after it feels like just another movie, and in a couple months I doubt I’ll be thinking about it at all. I suppose this is what Ridley Scott is these days and it’s so sad that the man who made Blade Runner and Alien is making such hollow science fiction these days.
The set pieces on display in The Martian are as good as anything I’ve seen this year. From Martian sandstorms to daring space stunts to random bouts of explosive decompression it’s a thoroughly arresting film. The action is interesting and it’s fun to hear all of the characters try and scheme their way out of impossible space problems. The interplay between Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is particularly crisp and feels if not what actual NASA meetings are like certainly what I would like to imagine them to be.
The problem with all these fascinating situations is we never get to see any real emotional reactions. Matt Damon is supposed to be almost certainly doomed millions and millions of miles away and with the exception of brief moments we never see him particularly sad or on the precipice of despair. We never see that reaction from anyone on earth either, neither from the people at NASA or from a member of his family, the stakes of the movie are so high but without seeing someone really care they don’t feel like anything. The Martian ends up feeling like a series of math problems to be solved and not like a life or death situation, and while approaching them like math problems might be what gets them solved from an institutional standpoint it doesn’t make for an effective movie.
There’s a chance I’m being too hard on this movie. It’s quite likely that “enjoyable but forgettable” actually describes a movie that’s more or less good, but I can’t help but hold Ridley Scott to a higher standard. I know he can make movies that are more affecting than this but seems trapped in a downward spiral of spectacle over substance that kicked off with Robin Hood, spread through Prometheus, hit critical mass with Exodus, and now has left us with The Martian a movie that barely seems to care about how little it cares.