I think it was Christopher Vogler who said that it isn’t enough for the protagonists in our stories to face peril. They have to face the worst kind of peril possible for that specific person. Added to which, in order for us as viewers, or readers to give a shit, the stakes have to be high.
A doting father, scared of heights? They must rescue their child from the top of The Shard. Greedy billionaire can’t stand bugs? His fortune is sinking under a load of bugs. No really. It’s sinking now! Strip off and get in there Moneybags! Feel those wing cases brushing your face! THE MONEY IS SLIPPING under the bugs! Now! Or all is lost! HOW MUCH DO YOU WANT IT, HUH? HUH?!
You get the idea.
If Moneybags didn’t care so much for money he’d just go home. If he wasn’t scared of bugs he would jump instantly and the movie would be over in 45 minutes.
I am not saying these models are perfect, but tension is certainly interesting.
So Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian, stranded on Mars, will need a county shitload of science skills to survive. There’s not much food so he might starve. It’s quite a predicament, make no mistake.
BUT. The little bastard is a botanist. Not just a keen gardener; a kick-ass NASA strength botanist who was botanisty enough to be trusted to terraform a planet. Mentally tough enough to have tolerated the months in space to get to Mars.
He’s got this.
Sure there are problems. Things explode. Science bites back. He deals with these issues in turn. Aside from one or two dashboard punches he never looks like he’s losing the plot which is in part because the plot is never off the leash.
Watney lacks vulnerability. This isn’t helped by the casting.
Matt Damon. I love Matt Damon. Possibly a little too much, especially in the scene where they show how skinny he’s got by having him sashay around, a little butt-naked.
Sorry where was I?
But you see Mark Watney in this movie – he’s just Matt Damon. Beautiful Go-to Astronaut/Sci-Fi Renegade, fresh back from his mission to Interstellar (where he was a much more emotionally interesting character). He’s a solid capable sort. They’ve included the humour of Watney, for example, his mining of the crew’s music collections to pass the time but even these cheesy disco tracks lose the OCD urgency they might have had; they become a peppy soundtrack, further diminishing the terror and darkness that this story needed.
Watney had nuances in the book, not so many vulnerabilities, but he had quirks that would have been nailed by casting an unknown. It would have enhanced the feeling that maybe Watney has NOT got this. If Watney was in real danger of freaking the fuck out or not having the answers it would be so much more satisfying when he triumphed.
It doesn’t work that way in film-making so they cast the money. He does it well. Serves up the zingers.
Ridley Scott has created a visually gorgeous and deft movie. It is true to the strengths of the novel, but ultimately it exacerbates the weaknesses; not least with the casting.
Cue the disco music.