In a welcome return to form by Ridley Scott, a decent script by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s book puts Prometheus and The Counsellor behind us. Left for dead on Mars, Matt Damon is Robinson Crusoe in Space; his Everyman charm leavens the tension with humour, and despite a melodramatic third act, continues a line in gripping space movies from Interstellar to Gravity.
After some unfortunate – and scientifically inaccurate – Martian ‘weather’ sees him left for dead, botanist Mark Watney has to eke out his survival until he can be rescued by the next NASA mission – a mere four years on a dead planet with less than three years supplies.
Damon (Monuments Men, Adjustment Bureau) is a sympathetic lead as Watney, a confident, cocky, ‘right-stuff’ kind of astronaut; possibly the least believable botanist ever cast, but put that aside.
His can-do, survival instinct begins with a bit of self-surgery. With Go-Pro cameras in every part of the Mars base, every vehicle and space suit, Watney gets to narrate his own drama in monologue; his own video diary, which is both dramatically convenient and entertaining.
While Watney is stuck on Mars, one of the finest supporting casts collaborate on Earth; Jeff Daniels (Looper) political head of NASA duels with his mission controllers Chewetel Ejiorfor (Serenity, Salt) and Sean Bean (Black Death, The Island). Kristen Weig (Paul) is the put-upon NASA spin doctor and Mackenzie Davies is the satellite-tracking babe in spectacles. Okay, maybe that’s unfair but Scott could have cast a plain, normal actress (Lena Dunham?) instead of the Zoey Deschannel-Kookie blonde Davies.
Up in space, the crew that left him behind is headed by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Interstellar) and aided by Aksel Hennie (Last Knights), Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan and Kara Mara (Transcendence).
There’s plenty of dry humour, smart one-liners and walk-and-talk exposition worthy of The West Wing.
And while the rescue mission gathers pace, there’s some astro-dynamics brilliance, JPL brilliance, Chinese rocket-science brilliance, lots of cool space-stuff, shiny buildings on Earth, big CGI landscapes on Mars; big rockets, big spaceships, funky Mars rovers and a lot of potatoes. Really scientifically exotic potatoes.
And while the dramatic climax veers off into the scientifically null and void action pantomime of your typical Hollywood blockbuster, it’s worth remembering how the previous two thirds on Watney’s Red Planet earned your admiration, with drama, humour and a lot of heart. RC
The Martian (2015)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Drew Goddard
Genre: Science Fiction
Runtime: 2 hr. 14 min.
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nick Mohammed, Shu Chen, Eddy Ko, Enzo Cilenti, Jonathan Aris, Gruffudd Glyn, Naomi Scott, Benedict Wong