You could call it the MacGyver effect: the curious thrill of seeing clever people solving problems in ingenious ways. That’s partly the key to The Martian’s success, both as a best-selling novel (by Andy Weir) and now as a movie directed by Ridley Scott.
Matt Damon is the lone lifeform on the surface of Mars – astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, presumed dead and left behind by his crew when a violent storm forces them to abort their mission. Waking up alone with only a few meagre supplies and a flimsy base to call a refuge, Watney faces years of loneliness and almost certain starvation. That is, unless he can use his skills and knowledge to figure out a means of survival – or as Watney says of his situation, “I’m gonna science the shit out of it.”
The Martian is, in short, the best space gardening movie since Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running.
Matt Damon is great casting as a resourceful, iron-willed survivalist who remains witty and upbeat even in the most gloomy circumstances. Like Jason Bourne or even Max in Elysium, Damon makes Watney a hero worth rooting for. The Martian’s a reminder, if any were needed, of how great Damon is as a lead actor. For many of his scenes, he’s essentially addressing the audience, straight down the lens, as he delivers his video diary on each successive day. There’s a humanity to his stoicism, the constant sense that his bravery and good-humour is a coping mechanism. He’s brave and jocular because he needs to be – the price of inaction or despair are simply too dire to countenance.
Watney’s life on Mars is intercut with parallel events at NASA HQ back on Earth and on the Hermes – the ship containing the rest of Watney’s crew, now heading back home. The sheer number of characters both travelling through space and crowded around monitors on terra firma means that screenwriter Drew Goddard can only sketch them in, but a mixture of astute writing touches and rock-solid acting means we can pick them all out at an instant.
At NASA, there’s Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) the administration’s cool-headed pragmatist; mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who’s more keen to find a way to bring Watney back. On the Hermes, there’s mission commander Melissa (Jessica Chastain, bringing the same stoicism she brought to Zero Dark Thirty), wise-cracking pilot Rick (Michael Pena) and Beth (Kate Mara) as a computer scientist.
Inevitably, some big names wind up in little more than cameo roles; Sean Bean’s flight director Mitch Henderson stops by for a chat and a cup of tea, while Kristen Wiig pops up as NASA’s PR wizard. One of the less famous supporting players gives one of the best performances; look out for Donald Glover as Rich, a disarmingly eccentric maths genius who seems to spend his entire life in a small, windowless office.
Because this is a Ridley Scott film, it goes without saying that The Martian looks spectacular. That this latest excursion into sci-fi territory should contain visual and aural echoes of Prometheus is little surprise, given that Scott’s brought much of the same collaborators back from that film – among them production designer Arthur Max, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and costume designer Janty Yates. But Scott also finds room to throw in the odd flourish that harks back to the desolation of Alien, with some shot compositions recalling that 1979 classic, and certain passages of Harry Gregson-Williams’s score recalling the reedy eeriness of Jerry Goldsmith’s old Starbeast compositions.
Rest assured that this isn’t a terrifying excursion into terrifying survival, nor is it the kind of Andromeda Strain-like sombre sci-fi you might expect from the early scenes’ rapid-fire tech-speak. Where Christopher Nolan spanned the universe with the Arthur C Clarke-esque Interstellar, or where Alfonso Cuaron waltzed us through his balletic Gravity, The Martian is a feel-good hymn to human ingenuity.
While not quite as overtly broad and goofy as, say, Michael Bay’s Armageddon, The Martian is a film you can watch with a box of popcorn in your lap. Sure, Watney’s fighting for survival, but he’s fighting with Abba, David Bowie and Donna Summer as his inspirational mixtape.
There’s a sense that Scott’s revelling in the simplicity of Weir’s yarn. Films like Kingdom Of Heaven and Exodus might imply that Scott is a latter-day Cecil B De Mille, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s actually better at doing things more like The Martian: contained stories that give him the latitude to paint the screen with eye-popping landscapes, but all in service to a compact plot.
Indeed, it’s exciting to see how good Scott still is as a visual storyteller when he has a strong foundation beneath him. Where, say, Prometheus came alive only in occasional set-pieces, The Martian has a rhythm and flow, a dynamism and coherence that powers it through its more exposition-heavy exchanges. (This is, regrettably, one of those movies where everyone reads their instant messages aloud as they’re typing them out – it’s an irksome tic that the film’s pace allows us to overlook.)
Scott no longer has that avante garde visual style he possessed when making Alien or Blade Runner, but he still excels not just at arresting the eye, but suggesting a world that’s greater than the one in the frame. He contrasts the loneliness of Mars with the bustle of mission control at NASA (which, incidentally, is a beautifully-designed set); the gritty, stifling dust storms howling outside Watney’s enclave with the pristine silence of the Hermes.
There have been things to enjoy in just about all of Scott’s movies since the turn of the millennium, but The Martian feels like his most satisfying, complete film he’s made in recent years. If it falls short at all, maybe it’s because The Martian lacks the raw, primal power of Alien, or the white-knuckle tension of Gravity, the film it most closely resembles in terms of genre. But The Martian absolutely succeeds on the terms it sets out: it’s a funny, dynamic and visually captivating space odyssey that positively sparkles on the big screen.
The Martian is out in UK cinemas on the 30th September.
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