Ms. Hipster read this book. She liked it to some extent, but remarked at how detailed and relatively dry it was. You know, lots of science about how to grow plants in poop on a planet some 60 million miles from Earth (at its closest). There’s a reason why you very seldom hear people say they’re going to be a botanist when they grow up. Oceanographer, sure. But never a botanist. In fact, I can only think of one other botanist character in all of my movie brain, and that was Chris Cooper’s creepy portrayal of real-life botanist (and orchid thief) John Laroche in Adaptation. He was hardly a stud who could have survived being stranded on a planet all by himself. And was definitely not a hero. So this movie was a real boon for the profession. Of course Chris Cooper was in The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon, so maybe it was Chris who convinced Damon this could somehow be a juicy part. But I’m sure not.
Now the trick would be turning a decent, but relatively slow book into a big, sci-fi blockbuster starring one of Hollywood’s true sweethearts, who would have to pull a Cast Away and talk to nobody for about 90 minutes. Luckily he would have a more convincing audience than a volleyball, as this stranded astronaut, whose team left for him dead on Mars, records his thoughts and feelings on the multiple GoPro cameras that seem to be placed in just about every crevice of his living quarters, vehicles and other various locations in and around their encampment. Those are just for posterity and not being broadcast anywhere, but it’s certainly helpful for us as the audience. Though — and I blame this on some clumsy direction — it just seems like an hour of Damon reading us passages from the novel and providing lots of exposition in this kind of detached way. It’s about as compelling as your dad reading the instructions for that IKEA dresser out loud as you turn the hex wrench. There just wasn’t enough in terms of the variation of devices to deliver that info, and the way it’s delivered makes it seem like Damon is maybe building a loft in his dorm room and not a life or death situation that depended on him making that right decision and executing perfectly.
This leads back to Ridley Scott. I always think I love the guy’s direction, but it seems I’m mostly basing that on the fact Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies of all time. Looking at the rest of his filmography, it’s way less impressive. Ignoring his last movie about Moses that nobody I’ve ever met actually saw, his last two efforts were Prometheus, which I really disliked and thought was a total mess from a directorial perspective, and The Counselor, which was one of the weirdest and worst films I’ve seen since Lady in the Water. And, yes, I know the guy directed Alien, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but I really only liked one of those movies and one of them I actually never saw. I’ll let you guess which is which, but suffice it to say that I like sci-fi, hate tales of Rome and just couldn’t take another depressing war movie when the third came out. Regardless of what you think about his track record, this one could have been amazing. It could have been grandiose and moving and dramatic. Instead it somehow felt small and inconsequential. And, most of all, it felt goofy. Mars farming done to disco music. Even the big crowd scenes that try to expand the universe and make the movie seem more grand would have made Roland Emmerich blush or would have made the Ewok celebration look well formed.
Is it a bad movie? No. Is it an Academy-Award-winning movie? While I don’t have a lot to judge it against, I’d like to think that it’s not. It just felt like everyone involved needed to try harder to make it better. From the script, to the direction and, honestly, to the acting, it was as if everyone was on autopilot. Maybe part of that is the dense source material. Nobody wants to sit around listening to someone expound on the properties of different chemicals to a GoPro, but the amount of yada yada-ing they do on the science in the movie just makes it seem unimportant — when the basis of the whole thing is that our main character is going to “science the shit out of it.”