Last year’s enthusiasm for the movie “The Martian” had less to do with our desire to boldly go where no man had gone before and more to do with our giddiness over watching Matt Damon shed his Jason Bourne armor and expose his undeniable charm.
Andy Weir, whose 2011 novel inspired the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2015, pops up in “Mars,” National Geographic Channel’s attempt to build similar buzz around a small-screen expedition. He should have brought Damon with him.
“Mars” certainly looked like a winner on paper. NGC is dedicating six hours of prime-time real estate starting Monday evening. The production team is led by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the duo responsible for “Apollo 13” and “From the Earth to the Moon,” adventures that made even those suffering from acrophobia want to dress up like Buzz Lightyear for Halloween and stock the fridge with Tang.
That star power — and passion — are absent on camera. The international crew, introduced just before a 2033 landing on the Red Planet, is made up of largely unfamiliar actors, although if you squint, the mission commander looks a lot like the president in “Scandal.”
Trouble sets in almost immediately. A malfunction on board, a desperate march through the dunes for oxygen, a dangerously low supply of toilet paper. (OK, I made that last one up, although, to be fair, I watched only the first two episodes. Could still happen.)
The more daunting challenge for “Mars”: cliché-ridden dialogue and poorly fleshed-out flashbacks. Collectively, the team has the personality of a bottle rocket.
The series’ boldest selling point is a gimmick. It’s billed as a hybrid miniseries, one in which interviews with real-life science geeks — former astronaut James Lovell, “Cosmos” executive producer Ann Druyan, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — are woven into the action to enhance the fictional adventure.
The strategy backfires. Business magnate Elon Musk, who is spearheading the privatization of space travel, comes across as the galaxy’s Most Fascinating Person. Tyson reaffirms his status as our most affable science teacher. Footage of explorer Scott Kelly’s video chats with his daughter during his yearlong mission in space are so compelling you’ll wonder why NGC didn’t turn over its airwaves to a project called “Scotty.”
Meanwhile, you’ll have a hard time remembering any of the stick figures from the fictionalized tale, even as one of the square-jawed crew members faces death and another tries to perform mind-melding tricks with her twin sister back at Mission Control.
Bringing such plucky characters to life used to be a calling card for Howard and Grazer, from films such as “A Beautiful Mind” to the TV sitcom “Arrested Development.” But “Inferno,” Howard’s latest big-budget endeavor as director, is his fourth box-office disappointment in a row.
It appears the once reliable filmmaker has lost contact with human emotions. To get back on the winning track, Howard will have to reconnect with his inner Opie and return to heartfelt dramas and comedies led by irresistible stars.
I hear Matt Damon is available.