Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard
This is a film that surprised me for two major reasons. Firstly the film was much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. When I heard about the film’s premise I was expecting something much darker and more despairing, kind of in the same vein as 127 Hours. I was not prepared for how funny and exciting this film turned out to be. Secondly is because the film was directed by Ridley Scott. It occurred to me after I saw The Martian that it’s been quite a while since Scott has made a great film (heck, it’s been a while since he made a good film). I initially found this film to be a bit out of character for him until I realised what a versatile filmmaker he really is. In his time he has made a claustrophobic horror film in Alien, a philosophical mystery in Blade Runner, a heartening buddy movie in Thelma and Louise and a historical epic in Gladiator. Therefore why not an uplifting survival story as well? In any case I think The Martian marks a return to form for Scott and I hope there’s plenty more to come.
The story is that of the astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), a part of a manned mission to Mars that gets cut short by an intense storm. In the chaos that ensues Mark is injured and presumed dead and so the mission commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is left with no choice but to go on without him. Stranded on a planet with a limited amount of food and supplies and without any means of communication, Mark must rely on his intellect, skills and spirit to make contact with NASA and to ensure his own survival until a rescue mission can be arranged. The team at NASA, led by its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and the mission directors Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), soon learn of his survival and work vigorously on the effort to bring him home safely. Meanwhile Melissa and her crew are wracked with guilt from leaving their crewmate and friend behind and therefore undertake to ensure his rescue by any means necessary.
Any film that features Matt Damon as a lone astronaut being stranded on a forbidding planet as well as Jessica Chastain is bound to receive comparisons with Christopher Nolan’s visual spectacle Interstellar. However, whereas Interstellar was (mostly but not entirely) characterless, anaemic and self-indulgent, The Martian is positively bursting with life, flavour and colour. The characters actually talk and act like real people. The emotional stakes of the film’s conflict feels authentic. The planet even feels like a character in itself, a great red desert both beautiful and ominous that is so full of majesty and wonder and yet so desolate and remote. Being stranded in such a place with little to no hope of survival or rescue is a daunting concept and the isolation and futility of such a prospect would be enough to drive any man insane. Yet this film depicts Mark’s harrowing ordeal with such humour and heart that The Martian becomes an absolute delight to watch.
Matt Damon kills it as Mark in his effort to stay alive and to keep himself sane. Given the dire situation he faces Mark resorts to using humour as a defence mechanism in order to keep his spirits up, which I felt was a very human way to handle such a predicament. He records daily vlogs detailing his thoughts and endeavours as he attempts to “science the shit” out of his resources in order to keep himself alive and does so with such an anxious yet heartening attitude that he becomes all the more relatable. This could have been compelling enough as a one-man survival story, much like Gravity, but amazingly the rest of the ensemble shines as well. The scientists at NASA are made up of interesting and diverse characters all working together to deal with this crisis. I really like how the film resisted the urge to include some sort of clichéd, bureaucratic antagonist trying to halt the rescue mission as a means of generating conflict. These characters are all on the same side and are all working towards the same goal, even when they disagree with each other. The only characters I didn’t feel that much of a connection to were the crewmembers. I thought they were likeable but underdeveloped.
Another thing to say is that this film is a technical marvel. The visuals are simply gorgeous to look at, particularly the Martian landscape which I thought had a real otherworldly feel to it. The 3D also works really well by drawing the viewer further into the world they’ve created. I thought the film did a wonderful job of depicting this alien environment and the challenges Mark faces in inhabiting it. As someone who doesn’t even have a GCSE in science I can hardly account for the film’s scientific accuracy. I did however find the science to be both interesting and coherent. I think it’s probably safe to assume that the film isn’t 100% accurate but, as a standard inexpert viewer, I went along with it just fine. The methods adopted by Mark seemed reasonable and plausible given the context and my suspension of disbelief was never stretched beyond reason.
There really isn’t much I can fault about this film. The characters are great, the humour is hilarious, the story is well told and the visuals are superb. My only real criticism is that I think the survival theme could have been taken a bit further. When I compare this film to, say, Gravity, I didn’t really feel like this film ever really expressed that same level of danger and desperation. Mark does have moments of uncertainty but he never loses his charm or wit through any of it. So upbeat is this film’s tone that I thought the tension never really reached the point where the possibility of Mark’s survival was brought into question. That aside, The Martian is nevertheless an excellent viewing experience and a wonderfully entertaining film that provides a funny, moving and epic account of the human spirit.