During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.
Ridley Scott has been releasing films at a fair rate over the past few years for a man approaching 80, with mixed success, but it’s great to see him right back on form with ‘The Martian’. Based on a hugely popular book, the film tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars by the rest of his crew, presumed dead. It won’t be any surprise to learn that Mark is alive, and the film follows his attempts to survive on the planet whilst the suits and scientists back home plot out ways to get him home. Adapting Andy Weir’s novel would be no easy task, given the book relies on a lot of internal monologue, but Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard find clever ways round this to capture the essence of the text without becoming overly reliant on voiceover narration.
We spend a lot of time in Mark’s company and it was vital to the film’s success that the casting was spot on for the part. In Matt Damon (ironically his second stranded astronaut role in under a year!), Scott found his man, taking advantage of Damon’s likeable persona to immediately help us to emphasise with Mark. Damon is immense, great in the lighter moments but truly excelling when the sheer magnitude of his plight starts to weigh a little too heavy on his shoulders. He injects Mark’s dialogue with a lot of charm, and the script is incredibly funny for a subject that could have been relentlessly depressing. Mark’s dry wit is a major part of this, but the ‘behind the scenes’ action at NASA as the various suits and scientists try to establish the best way to rescue him are often just as amusing. Damon is joined by a stellar supporting cast including the likes of Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain and my personal favourite, Michael Pena, who is fast becoming one of the most consistently reliable sources of comic relief in all kinds of genres.
The film is gorgeously shot, with Wadi Rum in Jordan doubling for the landscape of the Red Planet. Scott never loses sight of the film’s narrative, but there are opportunities to marvel at the environment as Mark ponders his current position as the only man on a beautiful planet we barely know anything about. The science often went over my head, although my understanding is it does have solid grounding in scientific fact, and it’s thrilling to watch Mark come across each problem and attempt to develop a solution. At times, it does feel like the film glazes over the hardships of survival on an alien planet, with Mark overcoming most of his setbacks with relative ease. Despite this, it delivers suspense superbly at the key moments and I was on the edge of my seat on several occasions. Approaching the conclusion does lead to a couple of missteps, with Scott overselling the rescue as a global event that would have people on the streets, but it’s a minor complaint on a film that earned the right to self indulge a little.
In terms of recent survival movies, ‘The Martian’ covers a lot of bases but I found Robert Redford starring ‘All is Lost’ to have a little bit more raw power to it, but ‘The Martian’ gets many things right and it’s one of my favourite films of the year. Overall, ‘The Martian’ is an excellent film, a real crowdpleaser combining superb direction, cinematography and effects with strong performances and a script that is at different times, funny, emotional and deeply compelling.
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie and Mackenzie Davis