Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Kristin Wiig, Aksel Hennie
In a long career that has had its share of hits and misses, Ridley Scott has managed to consistently make one great film per decade. In the 1970s it was Alien. In the 1980s it was Blade Runner. He showed he was more than just a great science fiction director with Thelma & Louise in the 1990s and the swords and sandals epic Gladiator in the 2000s. After a bit of a recent dry patch (Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counsellor, Prometheus, Robin Hood), Scott has returned to form with a film which could well be his great offering of the 2010s, an adaptation of the Andy Weir novel, The Martian.
The Martian gets straight into it, establishing its scenario instantly. Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is 18 sols, Mars days, into the Ares III research mission on Mars when an enormous storm hits, forcing his team’s immediate evacuation. Struck by debris and assumed dead, Watney is left behind. But he is not dead. And despite being stranded 55 million kilometres from home, he has no intention of dying. He takes stock of his situation. It will take four years for any rescue mission to reach him. He has enough food rations to last him one. So he has to work out a way to grow food for three more. His shelter is only meant to be temporary. He has to make it permanent. He has to find a way to let NASA know he is there. If he is going to survive for long enough to be rescued he determines that he is “going to have to science the shit out of this.”
The Martian is therefore a film that turns on the solving of problems – it could well be the first ‘botany procedural’ – and its strength comes in large part from how plausible it makes everything seem. While we are obviously a long way away from sending manned missions to Mars, the attention to detail and scientific logic of Drew Goddard’s screenplay, drawn from Weir’s novel, mean the film doesn’t feel like a fantasy. It feels immediate and true. It is refreshing to see a film in which it is the hero’s intellectual rather than physical prowess that is celebrated. The Martian is ultimately an ode to human resourcefulness and intelligence.
Ridley Scott delivers a much lighter tone than you might expect for a film about one man’s fight for survival, stranded in a hostile environment. This tone is largely set by Matt Damon. Combining the sardonic humour of Weir’s book and Goddard’s screenplay with a healthy dollop of his own charisma, Damon makes Watney a likeable genius everyman – an unusual combination. Despite him being alone, the film finds a way to get him talking. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks had a volleyball to talk to. Here, Damon has a series of GoPro video cameras which he uses to keep a diary. An important device, these diary entries allow Watney to explain to the audience what he is doing and provide him with opportunities to show his personality.
This irreverent tone is complemented by some bold soundtrack choices. Rather than sticking to a traditional dramatic orchestral score, Ridley Scott punctuates his film with disco music. Adding to the torture of Watney’s situation, the only entertainment he has available to him is the music collection of his departed Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) who has a passion for disco that Watney does not share. There are shades of Guardians of the Galaxy in the way the music juxtaposes the action, while tracks like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and David Bowie’s “Starman” take on a literal significance.
While Matt Damon obviously carries the film, The Martian is not a one hander. The scenes on Mars are broken up with jumps back to Earth which feature a large and impressive ensemble cast, giving the audience relief from the isolation that was not afforded to us in Gravity. We watch NASA chief Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars program leader Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) managing the public relations nightmare, strategising how to get him home and – similarly to when Matt Damon needed rescuing in Saving Private Ryan – wrestling with the question of how acceptable it is to risk multiple lives in order to save one. Contrasting Watney’s solo struggle for survival with the response of everyone back on Earth makes The Martian an exploration of humanity in both an individual and communal sense.
While most of the scenes on Mars are quite confined, reflecting Watney’s restricted world of the shelter and space suits, there are moments when Scott pulls out and lets us appreciate the harsh beauty of the environment. Shot near Wadi Rum in Jordan, near the locations David Lean used to shoot Lawrence of Arabia, this Mars feels like a heightened Monument Valley, giving The Martian shades of the Western as our lone hero journeys across this most treacherous of frontiers.
Coming in at 141 minutes, this amiable film never feels long. The Martian is an enjoyable, funny and absorbing film that excites you more with its intellect and ideas than with explosions.
Review by Duncan McLean
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