Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean
Release Date: 30th September 2015 (UK)
After a conveniently timed supermoon lunar eclipse and NASA’s thematic announcement of water on Mars, Ridley Scott’s hugely anticipated new film The Martian was released. Overall, a great week for all things space. But does the film live up to its stellar marketing?
The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, which was a bestseller despite its 10-page descriptions of orbital mechanics and how to make water out of rocket fuel. It turns out Weir’s passion for science and space is quite contagious, as the story (containing more science fact than fiction) surprisingly seems to appeal to an audience wider than just sci-fi geeks.
The film, like the novel, is a celebration of the scientific method, almost to the point of being NASA recruitment propaganda (not a bad thing, at least in my books). It depicts a near future, where the US space program is actually funded and sending regular missions to Mars. But when an unexpected storm hits the astronauts of the Ares 3 mission, they have to hit the abort button and get on their ride home. All of them succeed but one.
After his airlock misadventure in Interstellar, Matt Damon dons the space suit once again, this time as stranded astronaut Mark Watney. An expert in botany and engineering, he has to survive four years on the Red Planet with food and equipment meant to last 30 days, and a million things that could (and will) go wrong.
If you are a fan of Cast Away and expect a similar amount of psychological struggle in this film, you’re likely to be disappointed. Mark Watney is an astronaut. He doesn’t wallow in misery or break down. When things go south, he rolls up his (figurative) sleeves and gets to work, finding extraordinary solutions to his extraordinary problems. The video logs that Watney records in the process provide convenient explanations for the average viewer, who would otherwise be completely baffled by the application of hydrazine in the growing of potatoes.
The Martian is most definitely not one of those films whose plots you can destroy with a simple “they could have just done X instead”. Viewers who usually stumble upon plot holes will be pleasantly surprised by the smart characters making (mostly) smart decisions.
The battle between man and nature is waged on two fronts. While Watney is doing his best to not die on Mars, the scientists on Earth (Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor) are trying to figure out a way to help him from a 140 million miles away. Instead of an inhospitable planet, they have the media and budgeting to worry about. And even with the best minds on the planet working on the task, things still don’t always go as planned. The kind of problems that the characters have to tackle are not merely beyond the capabilities of a man. They are almost beyond our capabilities as a species.
One of the biggest selling points of the novel – the humour – is also well-executed in the film and it makes the lengthy technical explanations so much more easily digestible. Mark Watney manages to keep up delivering witty remark after witty remark even in the face of certain death, which some might complain is unrealistic, but let me remind you that astronauts are just made of stronger stuff.
Speaking of astronauts, Watney’s more fortunate colleagues (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, etc.) also get to be part of the story. Although they don’t get as much screen time as NASA, they easily pull off several great scenes, one of which is both the funniest and saddest in the film. Overall, you’ll be hard pressed to find a weak performance on either planet or in the space between.
The tone of the film stays true to Watney’s character, proving that being serious and being funny are not two mutually exclusive things. The classic strings&piano space soundtrack is broken up by disco tracks, which are a surprisingly good fit for a road trip across Mars. The film’s plot takes its time, stopping for the occasional contemplative or comedic break, but ultimately leads to an edge-of-your-seat climax that is as tense as anything in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.
In terms of visuals, The Martian has some of the most unobtrusive special effects that I’ve seen in a sci-fi film. There are no flashy camera moves meant to awe you. Things are just there and as real as anything. The Martian vistas are beautiful and desolate, often seen in distant overheads that might as well have come from a real NASA orbiter. There is one epic shot of the Martian tornados that just puts Interstellar‘s planets to shame.
Overall, The Martian may not be the most profound of character studies, but it’s a safe bet that it will teach you something new, make you laugh and leave you excited about space exploration and maybe a little inspired.