Review: The Martian

the martian

The Martian is the latest in a recent pleasing run of “life will find a way” “hard” science fiction films such as Interstellar and Gravity – more grounded than the former (and latter, I suppose!), a hoorah for science and can-do American spirit (with a little help from the Chinese). Forfending the larger philosophical leanings of those other films though, it sees director Sir Ridley Scott and marooned leading spaceman Matt Damon “science the shit” out of his predicament with gutsy good humour.

We open on Mars with the personnel of the ARES III manned mission, days away from going home, when a massive storm at their landing site necessitates an early abort. Botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is swept away, impaled through his bio-monitor and torso by a jagged tether. Unable to conduct a search and believing him dead, commander Melissa Lewis (a steely Jessica Chastain) makes the only sensible decision, and orders take-off to rendezvous with the Hermes spacecraft in orbit, and begin the long journey home to Earth. When Watney wakes and staggers free of the drifting sands he enters a long period of supreme isolation. One where he must use all his resourcefulness to eke out his rations, find an alternate, longer, self-propogating food supply, and contact NASA to plan a rescue.

We know the outcome to a story like this, the fun and tension are derived from how we and Mark Watney get there (the film’s strapline is “Bring Him Home”, after all). Three years on his own on the dead planet is marked by clever use of video logs, as we watch our Robinson Crusoe on Mars work things out, one at a time; from making his own water supply (setting fire to hydrazine), to shovelling soil into the “Hab” (his habitat) and utilising his crewmates frozen faeces as fertilizer to grow his own potatoes (“In your face, Neil Armstrong!,” he grins as his know-how yields results). As a treat, here is a deleted scene showcasing some of Watney’s dry humour towards his crewmates, as he continues their experiments:

Meanwhile on Earth, a NASA “Council Of Elrond” (an amusing The Lord Of The Rings joke) plot to work with the Chinese to utilise their rocket to send supplies to link with Hermes and slingshot back to Mars, making a very tight window of opportunity. Earth bound segments are grounded by professionalism, cost analysis, and maths. Lots of maths. But never is it dry, dusty, or baffling. Drew Goddard adapts author Andy Weir’s brainy debut source novel with wit and verve. Damon is perfect casting as a likeable, sarcastic everyman with smarts, a duracell bunny who doesn’t see death as an option (“Fuck you, Mars”), and dusts himself off after each knockback. There is little room for introspection, as quickly he figures out a way to communicate with NASA back home (digging up the old Pathfinder probe and expanding from rudimentary yes / no questions via camera, to hexadecimal alphabet typing). What soul searching there is comes late in the film, as the one chance only rescue attempt gets closer – by then Watney is somewhat emaciated (via clever VFX) the result of minimum rations for so long. Touchingly, he shaves his straggly beard and cuts his hair, wanting to look his best for the big moment when he reunities with his crew.

The right (hot) stuff

His bete-noir on Mars is the limited entertainment distractions he has from what was hastily left behind on laptops – old episodes of Happy Days (for his first official picture when his survival is announced to the world, he poses, Fonzy style) and Lewis’ 1970’s era disco music. This leads to an amusing gag when he motors out in the rover to retrieve another source of power, a buried radioactive rod – as he drives home with it perched in the back, Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” plays in his headset. Just like Tom Wilkinson queuing in the Job Centre in The Full Monty, he can’t help jiggling along, the irony of the situation not lost on him – the off-planet trap, you might say.

Many panning shots and overhead beauty passes by DP Darius Wolski convincingly sell Jordan as Mars, with VFX colour grading, as Watney trudges along, beavering away, or as his rover threads a tiny path through huge, ochre ranges. The understated musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams characterises Mars as a mysterious entity, unnerringly beautiful, calm, but deadly to the unwary. The Hermes is a wonderfully realised space vessel, its central hub spinning to create artificial gravity, the astronauts barely glancing out the windows as they finalise their plans (If I have one complaint, it’s that Scott didn’t opt for Kubrickian absolute silence for exterior shots of the spaceship). These people, and their Earth tethered cohorts, such as Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mars mission chief Dr Vincent Kapoor, pragmatic NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and various boffins (including a wonderfully geeky Rich Purnell, who calculates the trajectory for the journey) are professionals, with a gallows humour – “Are you f-ing kidding me?” Watney types back in response to a radical idea – without emoticons Kapoor ruefully debates if that’s a good or bad sign. They refuse to give up, when the science is on their side. The only weak spot is the human equation, and these men and women have trained and studied to be the best that they can be.

Many have hailed The Martian as a return to form for Ridley Scott, delivering a tight, engaging and engrossing film, perhaps suggesting he kept his fingers off the script this time. But he’s always been both micro and macro-manager, a world builder who also enjoys characters sparking off each other. He’s seemingly having the time of his life right now, putting young bloods to shame with his energy and work rate. Bring him home? He never left.

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