Release Date: September 30th, 2015 (UK); October 2nd, 2015 (US)
Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara
As Ridley Scott’s fourth headline entry in the science fiction genre, you might pre-emptively think The Martian is one giant leap too many. The film opens with a steady pan across wondrous space, a shot that harkens back to his first offering, Alien. But this isn’t Alien, far from it. Nor is it Blade Runner or Prometheus. The Martian is too busy swimming in the delightful proclivities of space pirates and gaffer tape to concern itself with morose terminators and monstrous creatures. In short, this giant leap is the best one Scott could hope to make at this stage in his career and, indeed, the right one for mankind to feast on.
Drew Goddard recalibrates Andy Weir’s highly regarded novel with impetus, creating a screenplay that sparks with life and manifests on screen in surprisingly slick 140-minute form. It’s about botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars after an Ares 3 mission catastrophe (a scene shot with intense furore). Accordingly, we spend a lot of time in the company of a man whose technical wizardry acts as a lifeboat. There is a lot of scientific space lingo and control room hubris, yet a combination of Goddard’s wily script and Damon’s charming performance renders the would-be impersonal exceedingly personal.
Mars’ landscape is incredible — when Watney awakens from his unconscious state and ambles across the rusty sand, you really feel his isolation. The grandeur both intimidates and inspires. His first call of duty is a squirm-worthy medical scene involving pliers and the astronaut’s gaping abdomen. Matt Damon recaptures the tortured spirit unleashed by Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, and the excruciating results would make her proud. His eyes are black and heavy at this point. To fund the sense of total seclusion, we’re stuck with Watney on Mars for a good chunk of the movie (though “stuck” suggests it is time spent against our will, when in fact it is some of the best time I’ve spent at the cinema this year).
The Martian is about a smart person (and later people) doing smart things, and Damon is perfect as the savvy loner. He is brilliant company, erupting with charismatic poise and an everymanness that usurps his specialised occupation. You feel an authentic burst of joy every time he connects the problematic dots via intellect and nous. Cinema will do well to conjure up a more likeable presence before 2015 is out. There’s no volleyball, but for a companion Watney employs a webcam and, like Cillian Murphy’s Capa in Sunshine, our hero speaks to the camera as if conversing with us and not with a machine. Emotions become capital and we absolutely get our money’s worth: whenever Watney wells up our natural instinct suggests we do the same.
The self-proclaimed greatest botanist on the planet often wears a scowl that implies a freak out is imminent, but instead whimsical quips relieve any tension. He has to be sarcastic and jokey in order to survive, and his jokes are unequivocally funny (“It has been seven days since I ran out of ketchup”). David Bowie’s “Starman” tune is part of an expertly employed soundtrack that feeds the genial air surrounding Watney’s shenanigans — potato growing, alphabet reconfiguration, machine hacking, to name but a few.
In any other Ridley Scott sci-fi effort, the titular man-Martian would be cursing God and trembling through his deserted predicament. But not here. Here, the prevailing sentiment is a hearty, somewhat sly, “Fuck you Mars.” Watney throws a plethora of insults at his host — the planet becomes the enemy. It’s man versus wild, and there is an acknowledgement from the filmmaker that threat ought to still linger despite the upbeat atmosphere. Watney, as such, has to contend with peril constantly swirling around him, danger emboldened by the movie’s forthright sound design.
Goddard’s screenplay — which he initially wrote intending to direct — likes to poke fun at PR and at press discourse. The film is barely five minutes old before the digs start: “Mark just discovered dirt — should we alert the media?” (as fate, or otherwise, would have it we got a water-related Mars announcement from NASA just days before the film’s release). While Watney does his best to stay alive, the mission back on Earth is to somehow spin his survival into a non-destructive PR story. Those doing the spinning, somewhat amazingly given the cynical Zeitgeist in which we live, are far from deplorable.
They each have flaws: Jeff Daniels’ NASA chief is a bit impersonal; Sean Bean’s Ares 3 crew supervisor heralds gut reaction over practicality; and even Kristen Wiig’s publicity woman can be on the dismissive side. But they are all amiable people trying to do good. While on Mars it is all about Spielbergian wonderment, quirky humour, and a genuinely winsome crust, the Earth arc mixes a jaunty detective movie with corporate drama. Bureaucracy plays a part — should they or should they not inform the Ares 3 crew that their man is still alive? Those at NASA struggle to keep up with Watney’s ingenious prowess despite their technological advantage, and the film hilariously emphasises this.
The cast is rich in depth but very large, and you worry that some might suffer due to a lack of screen time (a criticism many aimed at Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest). Thankfully, by the end, the vast majority are afforded a moment to shine. It’s great seeing Chiwetel Ejiofor in a breezier role, and he fits the bill as home-based NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor with coolness to spare. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the remaining Ares 3 crew members function like a well-oiled team despite their comparatively short-lived screen stint. Mackenzie Davis is very good as the freshman NASA analyst, energising a potentially corny role. Kristen Wiig, too, confidently plays against type.
As the film advances, the Sol counts (the number of days spent on Mars) that are systematically thrown up on screen do lose their clout. It could be argued that the piece unwittingly stumbles into a pacing issue; not that it ever threatens to plod along, but rather that the on screen presentation of advancing time is a tad careless. The longer we go, the less it impacts on us (though admittedly, by the time the grand conclusion gets under way nobody really cares).
It is dramatically better than Apollo 13. Visually, it rides the same rocketship as Gravity — Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is foolproof. The Martian probably isn’t Ridley Scott’s best sci-fi movie (both Alien and Blade Runner will take some beating), but his love letter to human dexterity, perseverance, and personality is an utter triumph.
Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox