Published on September 30th, 2015 | by Michael0
The Martian – Review
*Disclaimer – your reviewer saw this film the day before NASA announced that liquid water had been discovered on Mars. It didn’t colour the film when I saw it and therefore won’t colour the review*
Hey, imagine if Interstellar have been made by film makers with a sense of humour and a basic understanding of how people work! Wouldn’t that be great? Thankfully, that kindly old Ridley Scott has done just that. Fresh from the epic botch job that was Prometheus, Scott has adapted Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and made a film that has a distinct advantage over its predecessors in that the people within act the way actual humans do.
The premise is simple, Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is on a manned mission to Mars but due to a SNAFU, he’s left behind by the rest of his team. Watney must then work out how to survive on the inhospitable planet while waiting for any help to arrive from Earth. That’s it. No ‘what we do here will save the human race’ bollocks or any philosophising about the role aliens played in the creation of life on Earth. No, a bunch of astronauts fucked up and now one of them has to keep himself alive. And the film is so much better for its stripped down, relatable story. A huge part of The Martian‘s success is down to the casting of Matt Damon. Is there a more likable A-lister on the planet (poorly worded chat show statements aside)? Damon’s Watney is a mix of self-deprecating humour and strong-willed, obstinate optimism as he refuses to accept his fate and instead goes to work to conquer his little patch of Mars. So he sows some potatoes using his own faeces, blows himself up trying to make water and makes himself a hexadecimal alphabet so he can use a scavenged Pathfinder probe to contact NASA. If that weren’t enough, he has to put up with the music his Commander left behind. Apparently, she liked disco music. Exclusively.
While Damon’s performance necessarily anchors much of the film, he is ably supported, as his character is, by the team back on Earth. Jeff Daniels in the put upon NASA Chief Executive, who must balance his desire to bring Watney home safely with the public image of the organisation. Chiewetel Ejiofor and local favourite Sean Bean are the directors of the mission, often clashing with Daniels as to how to proceed. Community alumnus Donald Glover is an astrophysics whiz with ideas that might just save the day. Several British character actors also unexpectedly pop up to lend support, such as the brilliant Enzo Cilenti, fresh from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Sherlock’s Jonathan Aris. Meanwhile, on the ship that left Watney behind are an underused Sebastian Stan, Kate ‘not as good as Rooney’ Mara and Commander Jessica Chastain, making this the middle part of what I naturally assume is a Jessica Chastain/Matt Damon is stranded in space trilogy. The team on Earth work tirelessly to help Watney out, from sending him suggestions, to building exact replicas of his equipment so they can test what will happen. However, NASA take the decision to keep his old crew in the dark about the fact that he’s still alive, much to the disgust of Sean Bean’s character. This one element aside, the film has the whole of humanity pulling together in the same direction, which is about as rare in the pictures as it is in real life. It may be a bit schmaltzy for some but I liked it.
What makes this film rise above the competition is the humour and humanity, even if some of it is a bit forced. For instance, the ‘secret meeting’ discussing Watney’s predicament back on Earth is called Project Elrond. ‘It’s from Lord of The Rings’ explains, you guessed it, Sean Bean! ‘I hate you all’ is Kristen Wiig’s apt reply.
On Mars, Watney meets each challenge with an open mind and a foul mouth – ‘Fuck you, Mars!’ is how he beings his mission. There’s also a lot of nerdy fun to be had on the red planet. For instance, Watney is told via email by his alma mater that if you grow crops on a planet, you have colonised it. Later, as space is technically international waters and he hasn’t been given permission to salvage a craft, he styles himself a Space Pirate. It’s all light-hearted fun but it also subtly shows us the ways in which Watney has prevented himself from going mad with loneliness and despair from his predicament. NASA try to goad him into a particularly dangerous stunt by telling him he’ll become the fastest man in the history of space travel. The film is about the resilience of the human spirit, but not in the sense that it repeatedly tells you that that is what it is about, like other films I could mention (and already have done). At 140 minutes it could seem overlong, especially as so many scenes are of Watney trying to solve a problem, but in truth the film flew by, due in part to its likable nature but also because it cut between Watney on Mars, his old crew on their homeward journey and the efforts on Earth to help out. It might be Damon’s show, but everyone else is more than happy to help out. There have been a spate of beleaguered humans in space films recently, and The Martian is one of the best of them.