Ridley Scott is one of the greatest living directors of our day. The man is responsible for some of the most iconic movies in history, including Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner. He has also had his share of missteps, including last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings as well as The Counselor, a movie so bad you probably never even heard of it. Scott is also a master at bringing the vastness of outer space to film, a place he has returned to with his latest movie, The Martian. Recently, the cinema landscape has been inundated with space films from the exceedingly tense Gravity to the aspiration fueled Interstellar. So will The Martian be able to set itself apart from such stiff competition?
Based on the bestselling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian begins with an expedition of astronauts on Mars who are forced to retreat due to a severe sandstorm. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is lost and presumed dead during the evacuation, but Watney miraculously survives the storm, only to realise that his comrades left without him. Now, Watney will have to “science the shit” out of his predicament by ensuring he has enough food and water to survive the length of time until the next expedition can rescue him, while also figuring out a way to contact NASA. With the next scheduled Mars voyage more than three years away, Mark must use all his knowledge in botany, engineering and chemistry if he wants to return home. Meanwhile, back on earth, the heads of NASA try their best to plan the safest and fastest way to rescue him.
There are a lot of ways The Martian could have gone wrong. It’s a movie that’s heavily focused on a single character trapped in a deserted environment who has to do a ton of math and science to survive. It could have been unbelievably boring or overly complicated, but it’s not. The reason for this is the razor sharp script written by Drew Goddard (Cabin In The Woods, Netflix’s Daredevil) which adds a great dose of much needed humor and emotion to make you immediately sympathise and root for Watney and also excels at explaining the intricate scientific terminology to the audience. Goddard also clearly realised that the key thing to keep present as a theme was optimism, and so never lets the movie get too heavy or hopeless, while still reminding us that there are serious stakes in play. The Martian is proof positive that a good script is essential to a movie’s quality, no matter how good the director and actors are.
I’ve never been a real big Matt Damon fan, in my mind he’s a pretty generic leading man, but here he manages to really take this film on his shoulders and inject the right amount of charisma and likeability that raises the already fantastic script to a new level. Damon spends a large part of the film talking to himself or to a camera, recording the logs of his daily life on Mars, and never does it feel monotonous or procedural. He also spends a good portion of the movie in silence and most of his performance consists of his facial expressions and physicality, managing to convey emotion without saying a word. The supporting cast is expansive, including such big names as Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Sean Bean. Even though a lot of the side characters only get a little bit of screen time, they are able to immediately leave their mark on the movie. For example, Donald Glover has a scene-stealing little role as a scientist helping in the effort to get Mark home and he completely dominates the screen for every second he’s in it.
What also prevents the film from feeling boring or slow is the inclusion of a fantastic soundtrack made up of disco songs (for reasons that are explained in the film). There’s something odd yet wonderful about seeing a guy walking on Mars in full space gear while ABBA’s Waterloo plays in the background. In fact, one of the film’s greatest scenes is a montage set to the song Starman by David Bowie that will make you want to get on your feet and cheer the characters on as they, well, do science. Ridley Scott once again proves that he really should just make only space films from now on, as the look of both Mars and the space surrounding it is fantastic. You really feel the hopelessness of Mark’s situation, making each tiny victory feel that much greater.
The film isn’t perfect though and suffers from a few small problems that slightly took it down a notch. It could have easily shed a good ten to fifteen minutes off its runtime without really sacrificing much in the process. I also did think the film was just a little too unrealistic in the way it portrays a man who spends almost two years completely separated from human contact. It never really seems like Watney suffers any psychological side-effects during his ordeal. Then again, that’s not really the type of movie they’re trying to make.There is also much talk in the beginning of a perilous trip Watney will have to make in order to reach the arrival location of the next expedition, but when we finally see this trip, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
In a culture where we see hundreds of people die on screen without any consequences, it’s refreshing to see a film completely centered on saving one man’s life. The Martian shows us that nothing brings humans together more than the desire to save someone’s life, and that no challenge, no matter how hard it may seem, can’t be overcome with optimistic attitude and rational thinking. It celebrates science and math without ever shoving it down your throat and presents regular astronauts as realistic heroes that we can look up to. If you’re the kind of person who thought Interstellar was a little too stupid in its attempt to equate science to the power of love, then The Martian is the film for you. It’s hard sci-fi that will make you think, laugh and hold your breath in tension.
Final Grade: 9/10