The Martian

Posted: October 10, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

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If this review seems slightly familiar then it’s because I reviewed the book upon which the film is based a while back. Check out that review, if you’re interested, here.

It’s the near future and the crew of Ares III are 18 sols into their 30ish sol mission. After spending months together on the trip out there the crewmembers have an easy rapport. Everything is going to plan when they receive an update from NASA. The approaching storm they thought was going to be fairly mild is much, much more powerful, so much so that it will necessitate them aborting the mission, lest their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) be blown over.

As the crew make their way through the storm to the MAV however, flying debris slams into botanist Mark Watney. Unable to locate him, with his suit monitors showing he’s dead, and with the MAV seconds away from toppling over mission commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain) orders them to leave Mars.

Once back in orbit they transfer to the spaceship Hermes and begin the long journey home.

Meanwhile back on Earth the head of NASA Teddy Sanders (Daniels) aided by the mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) and NASA’s PR spokeswoman Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig . except I didn’t even realise it was here till the end!) delivers the painful news to the worlds media. Mark Watney is dead.

There’s just one problem. Watney is very much alive.

Now alone millions of miles from any other human being, with limited food and spare parts, Mark Watney must find a way to survive, and a way to contact Earth. But even if NASA find out he’s alive, is there any hope of rescuing him?
It’s always a bit of a gamble transferring a novel to the screen, and I’ve often found that whichever one I read or see first tends to be the one that I like best. The Martian follows this pattern, because I have to say that I still prefer the book.

However, to put that in context, all that means is that the film is slightly less brilliant than the book, but it’s still a brilliant film.

What tips the film over from a run of the mill spaceman-in-danger blockbuster into the territory of something a little special is the same thing that tips the book over the line of brilliance as well.

Humour.

As I probably said in my book review (sorry crossover’s kinda hard not to do) the problem I find with most hard science fiction is that it’s all so terribly serious, and hence a trifle dull, with ponderous dialogue and cod philosophising. The Martian jettisons that in favour of character who speak like real people speak, and characters whose response to danger and strife is to crack jokes, and so even more than Interstellar and definitely more than Gravity, The Martian is the best hard science fiction film of the last few years (and yes some of the science is a trifle wonky I know)

The film hinges on a great central performance from Damon. I’ve not always been his greatest fan, but his everyman astronaut is note perfect. In other hands one man wisecracking to the camera might have fallen flat, but Damon delivers his lines with aplomb, essaying a man who clearly knows he isn’t going to make it, but who still refuses to give up and uses humour to keep himself going. When he says lines like: “Mars will learn to fear my botany powers.” It’s hard not to love the guy, and impossible not to root for him.

This isn’t a one hander however. On earth Jeff Daniels proves the necessary gravitas as head of NASA, ably supported by Ejiofor and Wiig, and a whole heap of others. In fact the only character on Earth who doesn’t quite feel right is the one played by Sean Bean, he just seems a trifle off kilter.

Between Earth and Mars of course there’s the Hermes spacecraft containing Watney’s fellow astronauts. They’re all great, and even though some get more to do than others they feel like a team, feel like a family. Special mention must go to Michael Peña who gives his second great character performance of the year, from dumb ass in Ant Man to wise ass here, and his bantering with Watney is a joy, and it says something about the actors involved that two men typing playful insults to one another can break your heart.

But talking of hearts the living breathing heart of the Hermes is Chastain as Melisa Lewis, a woman haunted first by the thought of Watney’s death, and then by the thought that she left him behind, and Chastain makes you feel every stab of guilt that Lewis feels. She convinces not only as an astronaut, but as a leader.

They’re all helped by a script by Drew Goddard that lifts pretty much everything of value out of the book, and doesn’t feel the need to tinker very much at all, except in trimming just how arduous some of Watney’s adventures on Mars are, so growing potatoes becomes a little easier, we don’t see every one of Watney’s trips in the rover, and a very pertinent detour near the end is expunged completely (and rightly so, it’s a long film as it is.) It makes a refreshing change not to see filmmakers dumping everything that made a book great.

Beyond the script and the characters this is most assuredly a Ridley Scott film. He’s always been a visual director, and his eye for an epic shot is evident in almost every scene on Mars or in space. Mars is all expansive vistas, emphasising just how alone Watney is, it’s a beautiful, haunting landscape. Beyond mars the Hermes never looks anything but beautiful gliding through the heavens. Three years ago Ridley Scott went back into space and it wasn’t a rip-roaring success, but what we can learn from comparing Prometheus with The Martian is this, when Scott has a decent script to work with he’s still a great director.

Great direction, wonderful effects, a fantastic and script and brilliant performances. If I was going to be picky I could say it’s a tad too long but really I think the most telling thing I can say is that a film which held no narrative surprises for me still held my attention and kept me on the edge of my seat in places. I heartily recommend you schedule your own mission to mars ASAP.

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Comments
  1. Mim says:

    That sounds much better than it does in other reviews I’ve read (and I’d trust your reviews more).

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