The Martian

UK Release Date 30th September 2015
Director Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damien, a Red Planet
Runtime 141 Minutes
Certificate 12A
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 4th October 2015

Is it redundant to state that I haven’t read the book that spawned Ridley Scott’s latest space epic? I’ll flatter myself and assume that you’ve read some of these rambling introductions before and therefore it is. So I’ll head on with Sir Ridley then. Is he a Sir yet? Probably. Knighthood or no though, taken as a whole, his movies have been crushingly disappointing since… well, Matchstick Men (which I loved) back in 2003. That’s a long run for such a talented filmmaker. Robin Hood, Prometheus and The Counsellor may be my least favourite run of movies by any director I respect. The first essentially being all the fun bits of the medieval socialist activist story omitted, the second I STILL do not want to talk about and the third, well… hell, it was the worst movie I watched in 2013. And that was a year that delivered R.I.P.D.

So, after a brief sojourn to planet earth, The Martian see’s Scott back in space, though not exactly in science fiction. Andy Weir’s book is firmly based in science, if not to the exclusion of some fiction in order to create dramatic effect. The main selling point though being that Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut Mark Watney must use all his NASA training and his career as a botanist to survive Mars’ harsh environment whilst attempting to contact home. Watney you see was left, presumed dead by his crew as they evacuated the red planet during a particularly nasty storm. Awaking after the storm with a vicious headache and part of the satellite rig that took him out sticking out of his stomach, Watney quickly realises that he must do SCIENCE in order to survive in the hope that NASA pop back for him. In four years time.

Meanwhile, back on earth, NASA quickly establish that the team may have made a small error in bailing on their boy, and must marshal their resources and their PR in order to work out just how they are going to retrieve him. And tell the still returning crew that they’ve abandoned their botanist to his fate. Awkward.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, Mark ain’t going to take this shit lying down and after a brief period of sulking, he pulls himself together and gets on with the SCIENCE. Fortunately for us as an audience, Matt Damon is a superb piece of casting. Which is just as well given that pretty much everyone else in the movie skirt a necessary periphery. Damon has the right amount of charisma to keep his lonely stint just the right side of lonely for this movie and he is subsequently pretty good company for a guy at least 33 million miles away from his home. I say ‘for this movie’ because there is nothing wrong with dealing with the crushing loneliness of being stranded in space but that isn’t really the focus of Scott’s work here. The focus is very much on the ‘action’ of a man adapting and surviving in a completely hostile environment.

And it’s this element of the movie that gives pause for thought. Damon does a superb job of imbuing his character with the kind of attitude you’d think would be required to survive what he goes through but we don’t ever really dwell on his mental state. There are occasions when we get maddeningly close to the torture he must be going through. The best example being after the habitat pod he lives in blowing an airlock, destroying his crop and forcing him to literally gaffer tape up the massive door. As Watney attempts to count his meagre potato supplies, the noise of the wind sucking at the cobbled together door grinds across his face and makes even the simple task of counting almost impossible. It’s a soul rending moment and it made me pine for more glimpses into the void that the astronaut must be staring into.

Back on earth, things go pretty much as they always do in these movies. There is a NASA bigwig (Jeff Daniels - where the hell have you been?!) who isn’t happy with the more ad-hoc ideas thrown around by his team of boffins, a rocket propulsion manager (Benedict Wong - inexplicably listed right at the bottom of the cast list on IMDB) who just can’t manage that in SIX weeks - except of course he can do it in three, a PR lady (Kirsten Wiig) who really doesn’t get a lot to do, a SCIENCE man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who does SCIENCE and the obligatory grizzled astronaut trainer (Sean Bean - astonishingly NOT dying) who just wants to get his boy back to earth and will take RISKS.

There are also some geeks who help with various bits and pieces. The upside of this is that the movie genuinely tries to involve all the various aspects of a much larger team that would be required to deal with such an operation. The downside is that there isn’t any room for any of these people to be anything more than 2D plot carriers. This isn’t a fatal flaw and I’m not sure it could be avoided given the already lengthy running time but it’s noticeable that after the movie, you probably won’t remember a single character’s name beyond Watney.

The crew are likewise largely irrelevant. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is noticeable largely through the massive collection of disco music she leaves behind (a rolling joke with Watney that is genuinely laugh out loud funny), Michael Peña makes another bid to be given his own movie to carry (seriously Hollywood, that is the least he deserves) as the personable pilot Martinez but the remaining crew are given almost nothing to do. Kate Mara, Sebastien Stan and Aksel Hennie are really just there to make up the numbers. And Mara seems to be in an elicit relationship with one of them but I can’t remember which and it doesn’t go anywhere.

As for Scott, well, he sure can paint a beautiful landscape. When he is Mars bound, his movie is a thing of daunting beauty. His ‘hab’ (the pod that Damon inhabits) and the machinery that goes with it is nicely realistic meaning you aren’t distracted by pointless lights and buzzing and at times, it put me in mind of a far less painful version of 2001. Everything has a purpose and space isn’t wasted just for the sake of it. Shots on the spacecraft are particularly reminiscent of Kubric’s movie.

The Martian almost entirely boils down to Matt Damon. And this is a good thing. His Mark Watney is resilient, intelligent, flawed and downright funny so you don’t begrudge any of the time you spend with him. His physical transformation through the movie is more apparent than his mental one but considering you never really doubt the outcome (this movie is a rare case of not even Ensign Expendable biting the bullet - that would have made the whole exercise redundant), there is a good deal of tension here. When it’s on earth, the movie could be any number of other films where people stand around in awe across the world and cheer deliriously when an American is rescued. It’s a sign of the times when it turns out this can only be achieved by cooperating with the Chinese but then I sniff some Bay-esque marketing shenanigans here.

In Short:

Damon’s performance and the snappy script keep you on the edge of your seat for a good proportion of this movie. Scott certainly hasn’t lost his eye for a shot and he keeps the tension cranked at just the right level. That, combined with Watney’s dry humour and the hilariously inappropriate disco soundtrack make for an entertaining time. The movie is about twenty minutes too long but exciting enough for you to forgive it that. So, a return to form for Scott? Of sorts maybe but let’s wait until the next Prometheus / Alien / whatever they’re calling it by then movie to pronounce on that.

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