The Martian


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Martian
"The Martian’s real strength lies in its good-natured attitude."

The last decade has seen the seemingly tireless Ridley Scott return to the genre that made his name. In 1979, he delivered one of the most iconic science fiction films of all time with Alien, following that up with Blade Runner in 1982, effectively putting two giant feathers in the genre’s cap. The uneven Prometheus in 2012 brought him back into scif-fi epic game, and seemingly for the long term, with a sequel to that starting production next year and Blade Runner 2 also in the pipeline.

But before that, we have this quirky space disaster movie, The Martian, adapted largely faithfully by Scott’s screenwriter Drew Goddard from the bestselling novel by Andy Weir. Having more in common with the victory-lap, ‘the world comes together’ vibe of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 than the more ponderous Gravity, Scott’s film is a shamelessly entertaining, high-tech thrill ride with a nice, offbeat line of humour. It is this flippant down-to-earth tone, combined with a brisk pace, slick visuals and meticulous production design that is to be expected from the world-building Scott, that helps steer his film clear of the potholes that made his previous Exodus: Gods And Kings a borefest.

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The setting is a near-future Mars, where the Ares 3 mission, NASA’s third crewed trip to the red planet, is trudging its way through a routine series of experiments. In this future, NASA appears to have got a massive budget boost in order to be able to build habitats on the Red Planet, as well as having access to technology that can get giant spaceship The Hermes to and from Mars with a six-person crew in about a year. The Ares 3 mission is cut short when a devastating Martian storm forces an early evacuation, but one astronaut - botanist and engineer Mark Watney (Matt Damon) - is hit by debris from the base’ s comms antenna, which also destroys his bio-monitor. Mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) feels she has no choice but to order an evacuation on the nearby MAV orbital rocket. In short order, the Hermes and the remainder of the mission crew leave for home.

In fact, Watney is still alive, merely knocked unconscious and injured by the accident. His challenges are swiftly laid out for us, with the film mimicking the book’s boiling down of survival to numbers and resources, chemical equations and pegs-vs-holes challenges that must be solved. Watney is stranded and alone, with long-range comms down and therefore unable to recall The Hermes. He also is stuck in a bubble-like Hab with enough supplies, if stretched, to only last a few months. Given the resource-intense and long-distance nature of space travel, the return mission to Mars is some four years out, set to land at a site some 3000 km away. He must somehow grow enough food and generate enough water to last that long, then find a way to transport himself to the launch site.

Unlike the introspective Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ Robinson Crusoe-type epic, Watney isn't much given to mulling or despair here. He is a doer who tweaks and dismantles rather than sits, and thus pretty much gets to work right away. The construction of the narrative and Damon’s sympathetic turn as an everyman mechanic effectively gets us invested in Watney’s battle to overcome his practical obstacles - growing potatoes from the single pack in the mission stores, preparing the land rovers for the long trip, securing enough water via burning hydrazine - and The Martian feels a lot shorter than its actual running time because of the snappy pace.

Some of the challenges and emotional troughs Watney faced in the book are absent here, presumably to allow for a two-hour runtime. This has the effect of somewhat softening the sense of isolation and desperation, the sheer scale of the monotonous tasks this isolated astronaut had to carry out to survive, all of which if emphasised in more detail would have given more of an edge to Watney’s plight (even if Damon is, by the end of his stretch on the planet, sporting a pretty rough-looking beard and deathly skin pallor). That being said, the down-to-earth tone and Damon’s schtick in spouting intentionally cheesy gags to the many cameras scattered around the hab (a way Goddard nods to the diary format of the book) at least gives The Martian a different feel to other more stately approaches to the solo-in-space scenario.

As with Apollo 13, millions of miles away NASA's team of scientists are working tirelessly to bring Watney home, while his Hermes crewmates likewise have to do their part, in some cases going against orders. Here we have a classic case of needlessly overstuffing a film with talent, as no one, from Jeff Daniels as NASA's cynical director Ted Sanders to Chiwetel Ejiofor as the more sensitive mission commander Vincent Kapoor, has much to do, even if it is pleasing to see such an ethnically and gender diverse background team. It is really the Matt Damon show, and he has no trouble making Watney a relatable, likeable guy.

Shorn of much of the heavy chemistry and physics that were layered into the geek-friendly book and with none of the deep musings of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, The Martian ends up feeling refreshingly a lot more spritely than some of Scott’s previous, stodgy epics. It has nothing of the unsettling psychological probing or provocativeness of Alien or the memorable atmosphere of Blade Runner, although it shares their impressive ‘lived in’ production design ethos and a reliance on physical sets over pure CGI.

Visually the filmmakers conjure up a suitably vast, eerie red Martian landscape, cribbing from the epic approach of the master Stanley Kubrick in presenting us with vast horizons and imposing skies, something Weir’s, of course, could not give us. But The Martian’s real strength lies in its good-natured attitude, in how it showcases triumph as being something earned through old-fashioned careful forethought and practical skills, as opposed to blasting the crap out of an alien with a laser gun.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2015
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The Martian packshot
An astronaut becomes stranded on a mission to Mars.
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Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard, based on the book by Andy Weir.

Starring: Kate Mara, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Sebastian Stan, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mackenzie Davis, Jeff Daniels, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie, Naomi Scott, Sam Spruell, Jonathan Aris

Year: 2015

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


New York 2015

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