Title: The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Major Players: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain
Out Of Five: Four
With a CV including some of the most memorable films of modern cinema – Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma And Louise – and a remarkable shortage of major awards, Ridley Scott’s career has had its ups and downs. For now, he’s on an up and, as ever, he’s flying the flag for the epic. Not the biblical variety, though, because in The Martian he’s back on his other favourite territory – outer space.
It’s sometime in the foreseeable future and NASA has an active Mars exploration programme. The crew of the latest ship is on the Red Planet collecting samples when a ferocious storm hits, killing – or so they believe – Mark Watney (Damon). Their Commander (Jessica Chastain) decides to save the rest of the crew and they leave. But Watney is alive and, over the following weeks and months, concentrates on surviving and eventually re-establishes contact with NASA. Then the onus is on them to decide the next move – the possibility of getting him home.
I’ve heard it labelled “Robinson Crusoe In Space” and “Saving Private Ryan In Space” and there are bound to be others. And I won’t deny there are elements of both. But it’s not a problem, because that familiarity means you’ve found a comfort zone, even in hostile outer space. So when things go wrong, the shock is even greater. Our focus, of course, is on the solitary figure at the centre of the story, but even more so than usual – because he talks to us. He films a daily video diary, talking straight into the screen, so he’s looking straight into the camera, and at us. And it would be very hard not to warm towards a showman who puts Neil Armstrong in his place and proudly unveils his home grown spuds.
Fundamentally, it’s a good old fashioned adventure served with a hefty dollop of science. Watney would have preferred ketchup, but he runs out of that well into his stay on Mars. I’m no science geek, so I can’t tell you if the science makes any sense, but when a film carries you along in the way this one does, you just go along with it. Scott has resisted the temptation to, in the astronaut’s own words, “science the shit out of it”, but all the gadgets, jargon and computers are balanced with a more basic variety: a visor repaired with strips of duct tape, growing potatoes in the only available fertiliser on a sterile planet (think about it!), writing messages on storage crate lids to communicate with NASA. It’s not exactly taking the proverbial out of the high-teccherie, but it shows that something doesn’t have to be electronic or complex to work. The converse is true as well: it only takes the simplest error or fault to cause a catastrophe
Damon’s stranded astronaut is resourceful and anybody less geeky is hard to imagine. His sense of humour somehow remains intact – his constant griping about Commander’s taste in music is the film’s running gag. But there’s also his more contemplative side, reflecting that everywhere he goes on Mars, he’s the first. It’s where Damon’s everyman quality comes into its own. The rest of the cast is full of A listers, although some of the NASA suits come close to being 2D. Jessica Chastain, however, does bring some genuine life to her Commander: a clear and rational thinker, one who leads from the front and who isn’t afraid of taking risks, even when they seem just a little bit crazy.
There’s a seat in the Everyman in Walton On Thames with a slightly damaged arm rest, complete with my finger prints, because I was holding on for dear life in the some of the later scenes. No, I’m not going to tell you how it ends. Assuming you’ve not read the book, all I’ll say is that if there’s not a lump in your throat at the end, then your heart must be made of Martian rock. See, I’m not giving anything away ……..
The Martian is on general release around the UK and also reviewed on the latest edition of Talking Pictures.