The Martian (Cert. 12A)
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Drew Goddard
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean
Rating: * * * * (out of five)
Ridley Scott will probably always be defined by his brooding, dystopian, early-career sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner (and defiled for the latter day travesty that is Prometheus), but The Martian is, in spirit if not quality, their mirror image: a peppy, bright-eyed, often very funny tale of collective heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. In fact, though the epic grandeur is familiar, it’s hard to reconcile the buoyant, can-do tone with Scott’s usually sober filmmaking. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear Ron Howard was manning mission control here. Yet here we are. In space, apparently everyone can hear you crack wise.
Based on Andy Weir’s (initially self-published) stealth bestseller, and adapted by Cabin in the Woods’ Drew Goddard, The Martian is a hybrid of Gravity and Apollo 13 – a sole survival mission deep in space for astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) mistakenly abandoned on the red planet by his team; and a belatedly simultaneous rescue mission from 33 million miles away as NASA (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and co) scramble to come up with a plan to head off a PR nightmare.
Scott has always, er, gravitated towards the fiction element of science fiction and The Martian cheerfully readdresses the balance. As Damon eloquently puts it, his character has to “science the shit out of” his predicament and the ingenuity with which he grows food, harvests water and regains contact with Earth are all handled with an engaging propulsion. There’s little time for existential crisis when a disco soundtrack (ostensibly due to the terrible music taste left on Commander Lewis’s (Jessica Chastain) hard drive) wants to keep your feet tapping. If you want to see Matt Damon losing his shit when left alone on a distant planet, check out his Interstellar cameo. Scott, Goddard and crew are pitching to that mid-20th century era where space wasn’t just the final frontier, it was the springboard to a better, brighter future.
In short, a Scott film hasn’t been this entertaining since his underrated 2003 con-man caper Matchstick Men and, before that, the breezier stretches of Thelma and Louise. Yet this is never at the expense of the drama and, while it’s always clear that the film won’t end on a downer, Watney’s prolonged abandonment is utterly gripping, particularly the final rescue attempt by his returning mission colleagues. Damon’s Everymartian charm has the same facility that Tom Hanks had in Cast Away, an innate ability to hold the screen all alone and get the audience fully behind them. Virtuoso tech credits aside, The Martian’s ethos of getting the job done may persuade some that the film itself is merely workmanlike. And its brazen, mainstream confidence will likely deny it the critical and awards acclaim that requires more superficially serious concerns; but regardless, this is Scott and his audience having a blast in his best film in a millennia. Turns out the weightlessness of the void suits him just as much as the darkness.