Review: The Martian

As of late my reviews of Ridley Scott films have included caveats regarding how the man’s output has disappointed me for quite some time. Granted, I gave the odious looking Exodus:  Gods and Kings as wide a berth as possible, but aside from that it’s time for me to eat a little humble pie. While far from perfect, the fact of the matter is, I’ve warmed to both Prometheus and The Counsellor since they received their respective lukewarm receptions. The former has enough barmy fun to make its Swiss cheese plotting forgivable, while the latter… is a longer conversation. Ol’ Ridders has mercifully made things a lot easier this time around, however, by producing a film which happens to be plenty enjoyable first time around. Welcome to my rather glowing review of The Martian.

Turns out I may as well have been living on Mars as of late, as I’m not familiar with the source material; a phenomenally successful word-of-mouth best-seller from novelist Andy Weir. Here it is funneled into an old-fashioned feel-good Hollywood survival story via a script adapted by Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods), one that aspires to repeat the same mass-appeal trajectory. As with any big budget blockbuster science fiction story, it seems, this requires a significant helping of cheese and aw-shucks dialogue (perhaps this was in the original text?). Goddard applies these evidently mandatory touches with a fair level of judgement, never over-gee-whizzing the pudding. Perhaps fittingly it falls to buffer-than-your-average everyman Matt Damon to funnel this material into a likable and believable lead performance.

Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, a botanist on a mission to Mars. On the last day of the mission a storm hits base camp and, in a flurry of poor visibility and panicked decisions, he is struck down and believed dead by his fleeing crew. Watney comes to only to find himself alone on Mars, with no way of contacting NASA to announce his existence, and seemingly grim prospects for sustaining it.

Fortunately, Watney is blessed with that unflappable can-do attitude that often makes such characters utterly irksome (hello George Clooney in Gravity), yet Damon and Goddard’s script manage to keep him just on the right side of insufferable every step of the way. Damon charms the audience here, and as such you want him to do well. Being a botanist and seemingly not having seen the news of late, Watney goes to great (and dangerous) lengths to fashion a water supply for himself, as well as to irrigate some land to grow potatoes which will hopefully sustain him until Earth can come back for him. ‘Course, he has to get Earth looking for him also.

Sounds like a one-man-show reminiscent of the likes of Duncan Jones’ popular 2009 indie Moon or Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 classic Silent Running? Well, yes, you’re exactly right, at least at first. What becomes clear, however, is that Scott has corralled a cast of Robert Altman proportions to back Damon up as both the crew members who unwittingly deserted him and, much more substantially, the folks at NASA back home who need to help him return to Earth, time windows permitting. The roster is ridiculous. On Earth there are notable and enjoyable performances pitched in from the likes of Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Jeff Daniels, while cruising home in the blankness of space are a crew that include Kate Mara, Michael Peña and the mighty Jessica Chastain (who zooms determinedly around zero gravity interiors like she could teach Sandra Bullock a thing or two about a thing or two).

Even so, The Martian‘s lean-sounding story comes in at 141 minutes. To the uninitiated that probably seems a mite long, and it’s possible the film could be tightened up here and there. However, as events transpire and the third act reveals itself, it becomes quite evident why Scott’s film comes with such a bulky running time. Granted, the third act is where this magnificent story pushes credulity about as far as it can (there are only so many million-to-one chances you can stack on top of one another), yet crucially, it does so in the spirit of the best adventure movies. The Martian is a piece of popcorn cinema first-and-foremost. And if the proposed rescue mission is only an Aerosmith song away from Armageddon-style loopiness, it makes walking that tightrope seem as casual as your average EVA. Jus’ another day in space.

The Martian isn’t about whether every actor gets their time to shine, as it is an ensemble piece. Everyone does solid work. It just so happens that the chief protagonist is isolated several million miles from the remainder of the cast. Damon strides confidently through these scenes with a kind of pluckily determined tunnel vision. Goddard’s script frequently brushes aside tougher psychological questions about sustained isolation or even prolonged space travel, but it does so in order to keep the audience at a different level. This is not an introspective movie. It’s a cocky, indulgent, against-the-odds ride that celebrates mankind’s thirst for discovery, survival and the belief in the power of a symbol. It’s designed to be uplifting. So yes, Watney makes cracks about the disco music he’s been left to listen to, and yes he glibly “sciences the shit” out of situations, but the information is doled out judiciously and the tempo and pacing of the film is kept high at all times.

Scott’s previous science fiction films have been aesthetic glories, and so it goes again here. But where the likes of Alien and Blade Runner redefined how we might imagine the future, The Martian follows the likes of Gravity or Interstellar in reflecting the modern fragile functionality of space travel with only the reach of our endeavours dialled up a notch. At it’s most ambitious The Martian dares to suggest that space travel might become something that the Earth can unite and get excited about once again. Fortuitous recent news stories regarding water on Mars may even prove Scott’s movie to be prescient in this regard. The future will let us know. In the meantime, The Martian might be an apple-pie chomping slice of Hollywood hokum, but it’s one of the most finessed examples of recent times. Thoroughly enjoyable as long as you’re happy to whistle a jaunty tune while you’re waiting for rescue.

Score:  4

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