Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: September 30th
First things first, did you know that there’s a bit of a Mars-movie curse? Red Planet, Mission To Mars, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms, The Last Days On Mars, Mars Attacks. All flops. Takes a man with Jupiter-sized cojones to want to revisit our nearest planetary neighbour.
In the fifteen years since the new millennium has begun, director Ridley Scott has already delivered thirteen movies, which sort of makes him the big-budget equivalent of Woody Allen, and much like Allen, every one of his movies is worth a watch out of respect and potential, even if the movies sometimes end up as curious failures (The Counsellor, A Good Year) or completely forgettable (Body of Lies, Exodus: Gods And Kings), because every now and again, he’ll deliver a career highlight. The Martian is an example of that, being the best blockbuster-movie-based-on-a-blockbuster-novel since Jurassic Park.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, a cheeky-chappy botanist-astronaut who is presumed dead when a mega-storm hits on the surface of Mars. While the rest of his crew – Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie – have blasted off the planet to safety, the NASA folk back home – Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis – have discovered that Watney has survived, and must come up with a rescue mission while dealing with the PR fallout of having left a man behind to die on the barren planet. Meanwhile, Watney must put his not inconsiderable amount of scientific talent to work in order to find a way to stretch a month’s worth of rations and supplies to last the four years it will take before the next planned Mars-bound mission arrives.
Yes, it’s a little bit Cast Away, and yes, it’s a little bit Gravity, but mostly The Martian gets to be entirely its own thing thanks to an in-built sense of humour. Watney reports his updates to a video-diary, and Damon’s deadpan delivery of Drew Goddard’s script shows a simultaneous appreciation of the direness and ridiculousness of the hand he’s been dealt. There’s a constant air of “What else could go wrong?!”, before that next thing does inevitably go wrong, and instead of feeling overwhelmed, the tension is mixed with a well-calibrated light-hearted touch that helps keep the movie constantly entertaining over a rather spacious running time.
The all-star supporting cast mostly do great work in their small roles, with particular mention going to Ejiofor for keeping us up-to-date on the gravitas of the situation without sucking all the air out of the room, while on the other end of the scale, Donald Glover seems to be doing an impression of his Community cast-mate Abed, as his socially inept nerd doesn’t fit the flow of the rest of the movie.
Visually, The Martian is an absolute treat, but while that’s to be expected from a Ridley Scott movie, it’s not something we should start taking for granted. From the scorched-red vistas on Mars, to the constantly mobile scenes on the spaceship, as well as the grounded, claustrophobic Earth-bound debates, every frame is filled with beauty thanks to the top-tier cinematography, editing and scoring. Plus there’s that soundtrack, as Watney discovers a disco megamix left behind by one of his team-mates, which means that the likes of ABBA and David Bowie get blared out while he gets his science on.
If there is a complaint to be found, it’s that in trying to stay somewhat faithful to Andy Weir’s fantastic source-novel, the results can sometimes feel somewhat disjointed. Much like Jurassic Park, the adaptation tried to dump a lot of the science mumbo-jumbo and keep it streamlined. Talk of DNA sequencing and gender-assignments got squished down to Doctor Grant telling us that “Life found a way”. In The Martian, where the book was able to get into the nitty-gritty of Watney’s isolation and potential impending insanity, the movie simply says “Seven Months Later” and keeps on moving. It’s a jarring moment, as up until then we felt as if we’ve been right alongside our hero from the start, and while it certainly aids the movie in remaining more cinematic, it does undercut that compounding sense of loneliness.
That being said, this is still Ridley Scott’s best movie since (insert your opinion of what Ridley Scott’s last great movie was), and he has successfully managed to adapt a borderline unadaptable, science heavy, mostly single-character novel into one of the most entertaining, epic-scale blockbusters of the year.