I am about to make a patently unfair comparison, but the job of the reviewer is to be honest, and this has been my overriding feeling for the past couple of days: there's ultimately nothing that The Martian does that 1995's Apollo 13 and 2013's Gravity didn't already do. And they both did it better.

None of which isn't to say that The Martian isn't a perfectly charming, entertaining brainy-adjacent popcorn movie for grown-ups in its own right. It's a lark, far more than any description of the plot or a glance through the career of director Ridley Scott (who hasn't made a film this top-to-bottom satisfying since at least American Gangster in 2007. At least) would suggest, and I don't know that it's really to its benefit. Certainly, Gravity was a pretty no-holds-barred bit of spectacular fluff in its own right, but that film had already clarified by the end of its bravura opening shot that terrifying, unpredictable death was a real possibility for its characters, and that gave it dramatic stakes worth paying attention to. It is really, really, really hard to imagine at any point in The Martian that something honestly bad might happen to anybody onscreen, so it's never particularly tense or consequential - not a good look for a 144-minute adventure movie. You might say that there is no weight in this space movie, yes? Aha.*

Based on Andrew Weir's self-published hit novel, The Martian describes a manned mission to Mars gone all wrong: six local days into a scheduled 31-day trip, the crew of NASA's Ares III mission are beset by an unexpected storm and obliged to take off in a hurry and ahead of schedule. In the chaos, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after he goes missing and his bio-monitor is damaged; it's only through sheer chance that he's not dead, but with only the disordered scraps of a mission scattered around the Hab - the presumably temporary habitation set up on then planet - and no means of communicating with Earth or the Ares III crew, he might as well be. Still, indefatigable human spirit and all that. Watney flings himself with intentional good cheer into the task of figuring out how to stretch his current base of resources as long as possible, while figuring out a way to grow food long enough that he'll still be around when the next Mars voyage lands. Better yet, he can try to jerry-rig some means of communication from the broken piles of electronics all around, and perhaps get NASA to launch a rescue mission early.

It would not be unfair, maybe not even snippy, to suggest that The Martian is basically a series of hard sci-fi puzzles strung together. This is an ancient and honorable tendency in genre fiction, and not worth dismissing, though 144 minutes is a hell of a long time to devote to it (okay, so that's the thing The Martian does that Gravity doesn't: extend a slip of a concept to an indefensibly bloated running time). Plus, The Martian games things to make sure that its series of puzzles are as fun to watch as possible. Drew Goddard's script is full of self-conscious peppy one-liners and crowing masculinity (thus does he perfectly marry the styles of his two main collaborators, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams), and Damon has a transparently large amount of fun playing his character as, basically, a charismatic frat bro in space, eager to trumpet his successes and amiably dismissive of his failures. And yes, he does spend an awful lot of time talking to himself; the film gives him a video diary to justify that, though it comes off much more as a contrivance to fill a one-man show with dialogue, and not so much a Cast Away-esque study of how a man uses prattle to stave off loneliness. Since that would be yet another way that The Martian would have to be more somber than anybody involved cares for.

Scott has never done a real true comedy before (unless you count A Good Year, which is about as funny as a child's funeral), and The Martian isn't where he starts, but it is predominately funny, somewhere at the same level of breeziness as the director's 2003 caper film Matchstick Men. Which turns out to be a pretty good point of comparison for just how a glossy visualist and gifted portrayer of intermittent violence like Scott manages when he's making an ambling, lanky diversion like this one. The odd thing about The Martian as a cinematic object is that it has certainly no lack of visual style - the use of direct address and the hard lighting and blunt colors of the Martian landscape in Dariusz Wolski's camera make this one of the year's most distinctive-looking blockbusters - and yet style is the last thing the movie tries to sell us on. This is first and above all about the cheeky, ingenious Watney, played with maxed-out boyishness by Damon and framed by Scott primarily in medium and close-up shots that invite us to think of the whole movie as a shaggy dog story being told to us by our good buddy Mark. Not the extraordinary utilitarian production design by Arthur Max nor the excellent visual effects, among the busiest and most totally effective of any big-budget film in 2015, are able to pull focus from Watney's bullish personality, and uncharacteristically, Scott appears to have had no interest in it being any other way.

This is pleasing, as far as it goes - I confess that the self-satisfied snarkiness of Goddard's Weir's dialogue wore on me (see comments), and it certainly does not bring out the best in Damon, an actor who needs to be kept deliberately far away from self-satisfaction - but surely I can't be alone in wishing that The Martian had a bit more to it? It boasts a ludicrously overqualified ensemble cast: back on Earth in Mission Control, we can spot Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, a straightfaced Kristen Wiig, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Donald Glover too, in a role that's frankly small enough to qualify as a cameo); on the Ares III, making the hard decision to risk themselves to go back for Watney, are commander Jessica Chastain, along with Michael Peña, unknown-in-America Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, and Sebastian Stan. Out of all those people, Chastain is the only one given enough of a part that she can do anything with it, and even that, the film only does begrudgingly. Otherwise, the film basically contains nothing but a blurry mass of humanity that we sometimes cut away to for a brief vacation from Damon; when actors at the level of Ejiofor, Daniels, or Peña can't be said to make any more impression or give any better of a performance than a non-entity like Stan, it's clear that the movie's investment in its characters is wholeheartedly superficial.

And this brings me back to the lack of stakes, the lack of danger. It's such an agreeable piece that it forgets the reason that it's meant to be a rousing tribute to human resilience: space is a nasty, deadly sonofabitch. Watney is constantly fighting for his life. Take away the constant crushing awareness of that, and what's left? Damon being beguiling, and a film made out of a creative series of problems and solutions solved with enough brio that it never feels mechanical. By all means, The Martian is enjoyable to watch, and we'd be better off if a popcorn movies this interested in tickling our sense of logic as well as our pleasure centers was simply average instead of an exciting, one-of-a-kind standout. Nothing about that enjoyment is particularly lingering, though: it's a movie to watch, attend to, and laugh with, and a movie to forget about thereafter, and no life-and-death struggle should be so glancing in its effect.