tue 18/06/2024

The Martian | reviews, news & interviews

The Martian

The Martian

Matt Damon gives a masterclass in survival in Ridley Scott's space adventure

In space they can't hear your jokes. Matt Damon without an audience in 'The Martian'

How kind of the boffins at NASA to announce their spectacular discovery of water on Mars this week – giving a timely, real-science boost to the release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian. In truth, the film needs no such assistance. Despite following fast in the warp drive of Gravity, Interstellar and Scott’s own Prometheus, this fabulously entertaining film doesn’t suffer either through space fatigue or by comparison.

It’s day 18 of a manned mission to Mars. Scientists are collecting their samples from a very red desert plain, when a severe storm hits the planet. Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) decides to abandon the mission, but in the tumult of the storm botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon, pictured below with Chastain) is separated from the group. Assuming he’s dead, and with seconds to spare, his colleagues take off without him.

The window to Damon’s hugely engaging and accessible performance is Watney’s decision to keep speaking to his mission log But Watney is alive. Although with no way to contact NASA and four years to the next Mars mission – on a planet with no food or water – the odds are that he won’t be for much longer.

Adapted from Andy Weir’s novel, Drew Goddard’s nimble script now moves between three points of action: Watney’s efforts on Mars to feed himself and survive the long haul; Earth, where NASA eventually realise they have left a man behind and try to devise a rescue plan; and the space ship that is now returning to Earth, on which Watney’s fellow astronauts are oblivious of his fate.

The balance between these three elements is an integral part of the film’s dynamic. Yet the focus is Mars, and Watney. Living in the mission’s laboratory, with its numerous toys and a surface vehicle to assist him, he sets about the business of survival: growing potatoes (using the astronauts' excrement as compost), creating water, finding ingenious ways to send messages across space, sprouting pirate-like facial hair.

The key to the narrative thrust, and the window to Damon’s hugely engaging and accessible performance, is Watney’s decision to keep speaking to his mission log; playing to the camera to keep his spirits up, his indomitable nature and goofy wit shine through. The tone of the whole film is established by the botanist’s reaction soon after realising his predicament. “I’m going to have to science the s*** out of it,” he declares, adding later, “Mars will come to fear my botany powers.”

On Earth, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mission controller leads the efforts to bring him home, with Jeff Daniels in sanctimonious The Newsroom mode as the NASA boss who isn’t always as helpful as he might be, and Kristen Wiig (pictured below with Ejiofor) in an atypical role as the NASA press officer. On the spaceship, Chastain makes a formidable space captain, who will lead her crew in a game-changing intervention. Interestingly, both Damon and Chastain appeared in Interstellar; this time she gets to join in the action and he gets to play someone rather more heroic.

Unlike Prometheus, on which Scott tried and failed to combine the idealism of space exploration with the pessimistic horror of the Alien films, The Martian keeps the plot simple and the emphasis on the feel-good – and is all the better for it. The film it most brings to mind is Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which recreated the real-life attempt to return the crippled space ship and its three astronauts safely to Earth. The Martian is driven by the same, positive human characteristics – problem-solving ingenuity, endurance, teamwork and camaraderie.  

The result is a terrifically human slice of sci-fi, which makes space travel plausible without taking itself too seriously, Damon’s jokey turn accompanied by cute touches on the road to survival (the use of a tarpaulin being the cheekiest) and on the soundtrack; I never imagined I’d hear Abba’s Waterloo in a space drama.

Of course, with Scott every aspect of The Martian is gloriously visualised, from the intemperate planet to the space-travelling technology and space itself. This not only reminds us of the director’s sterling work in the genre – Alien, Blade Runner – but is his best film in years.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for The Martian


This not only reminds us of the director’s sterling work in the genre – 'Alien', 'Blade Runner' – but is his best film in years


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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