You might think that The Martian, the third consecutive Hard-Science (meaning real, basically) space movie to be released in the autumn, might have its work cut out for it to stand out, as you might be led to believe that Gravity and Interstellar have all but sown up this genre for the next couple of years. However, like recent superhero films, you’ll be surprised how adaptive and engaging a film can be by just being well-told, well-made and well-done. The Martian might have used parts, but it makes them work in new ways.
The plot is simple: an astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after a storm causes the crew to depart without him. With dwindling supplies, he has to do something about that. Easily said than done, as once you start to ponder the mechanics of the plot and the weight of the situation, it becomes almost impossible to comprehend how Watney could survive this situation. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, like Andy Weir’s book which this is based on, it decides to treat its audience with intelligence, countering the usual tropes by applying real science (or real enough anyway) as their secret weapon for plotting the film, making it an rousing experience. You watch Watney work through every step in this plans, setting up objectives, breaking it down in steps, and when failing, like reality, start all over again until you do succeed.
Instead of tedious ruminations and overwhelming angst, Goddard’s screenplay portrays invention as a truly human act, that in the face of overwhelming odds, there can be room for thrills and comedy within failure and success. The film’s core strength is just seeing Watney calculate and use out of the box thinking, almost to the point that seeing vast Jordanian deserts subbing in as the red planet pales in comparison to just seeing Watney make video logs about one crew-member’s taste of archaic video games he finds in their belongings. This strength is not just Matt Damon’s sarcastic but intelligent botanist, but that of the scientific community, exasperated and human. Gravity made us fear space and aware of our fragility in the vast expanse of space, Interstellar gave us a future to aspire to when all hope is lost, The Martian opens us to what we could possibly start doing now and how we can work together.
The film’s lack of bleakness is refreshing and joyous, as its simple meat and potatoes (ahem) concept becomes an ode to human will for survival and collaboration, but also to the scientific brilliance of everyone that is involved within the realm of STEM subjects (but even then public relations also helps, courtesy of Kristen Wiig’s beleaguered NASA spokesman). Chiwetel Ejifor, Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and more on the ground. Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and more in space. While their back-stories are only hinted at, it is the strength of the ensemble that power the film, that they support this one man through his personal disaster movie. There are solutions and there are set-backs, but this film remains optimistic even when the situation is at its bleakest. Humour, much of it disco music based, is reminds us that this an adventure, but never loses sight of Watney’s dilemmas. It is not as epic or as deeply felt as the other space films that have been released, and we don’t see much trauma of the situation that Watney is in, a Cast Away Wilson moment, particularly as it fast-moving story skips over countless ‘Sols’ (Mars Days) of survival and travelling. However The Martian isn’t about trying to intellectually analysing how someone would feel or how they would be affected (except occasional ‘F**k you, Mars’), but how they would escape death, and who would help them.
The Martian is a great adventure, that while it doesn’t have the depth or epic grandeur of preceding space films (Ridley Scott’s direction and design is minimalist, weirdly anonymous at times), but Drew Goddard’s screenplay is the real winner with numerous laugh out moments and some choice character development, and Matt Damon’s performance as a spirited botanist. For a blockbuster, it is the most optimistic and almost entirely superhero-free, as it takes a village to save one astronaut.
RATING: FOUR STARS.