The Martian: Film Review
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Eijofor
Director: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott's latest film, The Martian, is a heartfelt paean to the time when NASA missions and the space race held the world in its thrall.
Based on Andy Weir's novel, Matt Damon stars as NASA astronaut Mark Watney, who's part of an ARES mission on Mars. When a storm hits the base, the crew's forced to flee the planet - but just before they leave, Watney's struck and believed dead. With a split-second decision to make, the commander of the team (Chastain) decides they must leave....
When Watney comes around on the red planet, he realises that he's on a foreign alien world, abandoned, with limited rations and with no way to contact NASA....
The Martian is, for the most part, really the Matt Damon show.
Channeling once again his affable everyman appeal to great dramatic effect, Damon manages to do much with little to interact with. Thanks to a narrative trick of having to record logs for back on Earth, Damon finds his Wilson and we, the audience, find some kind of semblance and route into what he's actually thinking, why he's doing it and how he's doing it as well (it's not hard to think of this film as Ridley Scott's audition for a NASA recruitment video).
Though one suspects there may be issues with some of the science (I'm not 100% sure that duct tape can fully seal a cracked spacesuit, or congealed blood), the fact that The Martian becomes a problem solving film is inherently one of its pluses, as it swings back and forth between Earth-bound efforts to save him and Watney's (occasionally convenient) efforts to survive on the surface of Mars.
It's back on earth that the ensemble cast really opens up to dramatic effect as the usual tropes of time and supplies threaten to run out and tough decisions have to be made. Daniels deserves mention for his relatively impassive head of NASA, the kind of guy you want to have make the tough decisions - and his stoic approach is counter-balanced by Bean's humane touch as the head of the crews of NASA. Equally, the politics of the situation are calmly thrown into the mix, rather than used as dramatic sounding posts.
It's fair to say The Martian lacks the urgency of the likes of Gravity, the hard science of Interstellar and channels more of Apollo 13's collaborative approach to humans being human and tackling problems. Wisely shorn of the hysterics that ramped up Gravity's stress-levels and avoiding any kind of mention of whether Watney has family waiting for him (a bold dramatic move), Scott's insistence on getting on with the job, celebrating humanity's approach to dealing with problems and general resilience when the chips are down serve the story well. By bringing in bouts of unexpectedly humour on Watney's behalf, Scott and Damon make him a character to easily identify with even if his plight will be alien to many.
Mixing in disco songs and a prepping montage to David Bowie's Starman bring a level of cheesiness to the ever-so slightly overlong proceedings too, but not once does it truly threaten to derail Ridley Scott's latest space opus. His opening sequence continues his ethos that space is all well and good but can go to hell in a handcart in but seconds; and there are little signs of Watney losing the plot after so much time alone and being forced to "science the shit" out of his predicament. (Though Damon's facials when faced with the tantalising prospect of rescue say more than any dialogue could)
However, ultimately, The Martian is a heartfelt ode to NASA, a salutation to its dreams and dreamers among the stars and a rising chorus of support for humanity's place in the universe, both literally and metaphorically; it's sci-fi at its most stripped down and simplistic, but it's a film that is as aspirational as it is entertaining.