The Martian Review
Ridley Scott is synonymous with science-fiction; Alien is one of the finest films ever made and defined the genre. But that reputation has been dented. There is a lot to like about Prometheus (don't shoot me!), but it is an overblown mess, obvious from the opening scene that it wasn't going to share its predecessors grasp of storytelling. So it's interesting that The Martian should open with similar titles to Alien. Even Harry Gregson-Williams' score briefly apes Jerry Goldsmith's. If Scott is making a statement of intent, he has every right to; The Martian is a superb return to form.
Based on the book by Andy Weir, The Martian is the story of Astronaut Mark Watney, stranded on Mars. Left for dead by his distraught crew following an accident in a fierce storm, he's determined to survive the harsh landscape. Meanwhile NASA realise he has survived and race to contact him, while struggling to solve the incredible puzzle of how can they bring him home.
It's moving, exhilarating, and huge. The red planet looks like a wide-screen version of the Grand Canyon through the lens of Dariusz Wolski, the cinematographer who has worked with Scott on his last two movies. The 3D as usual is unnecessary though. The scenery is dramatic enough.
Not that it had to be set on Mars at all; one of the delightful tricks the film plays is the simplicity of its story. Having not read the book yet, I can't comment on how well Drew Goddard has adapted it. In its own right the screenplay is excellent. It centres on characters and situation, leaving so much breathing space Scott expands it with style. It feels breezy even as it sails past the two hour mark. A nerve-shredding impossible task at the centre, infectious charm, a script full of zingers and cool, understated direction? Ridley Scott just made his heist movie.
The premise is powerful, the execution light. It’s an assured film able to laugh at itself even while the tension ratchets up to an astonishing finale. Maybe the story never had to be set on Mars, but the planet is far away enough to be ridiculous and close enough to be believed; the enormity of being left for dead on a deserted planet never leaves, but the self-aware narrative never forgets how absurd it is too. So when Jessica Chastain suggests mutiny in order to rescue Matt Damon, it reminds us of Kirk disobeying orders in the silly Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, yet it teases that this could happen. Only this week, shortly before the film’s general release, we heard the incredible news that there’s water on Mars. Timing like that can only raise healthy suspicion that NASA were complicit in the film's publicity! But in any case, travel to Mars is even more likely to be achievable in our lifetime.
On paper the story is an Apollo 13/Cast Away mashup, yet it's like neither. It never takes itself too seriously, if at all. This is a film so self-assured and confident, the bulk of its incidental music is disco classics! It's a running joke that it's the only music Watney could find; Scorcese goes for Rolling Stones, Scott for ABBA. And it’s brilliant.
Like any irreverent caper film, it's deadpan funny. That explains the casting of proven comics: Judd Apatow regular Kirstin Wiig, Jeff Daniels (not unlike his Speed role) and Michael Peña play straight roles with a glint in their eyes. Others with more serious CVs like Chiwetel Ejiofor, House of Cards' Kate Mara (neatly tip-toeing away from the twitching carcass of Fantastic Four) and Jessica Chastain have fun finding similar humour. Sean Bean has reached an age where he exudes gravitas with ease. He must be relishing the novelty of surviving the entire running time. That's not a spoiler - he's the noble and safely earth-bound NASA flight director.
And then there's Matt Damon as Mark Watney. The last time we saw him stuck on a deserted planet in a space suit was Interstellar. He's far more trustworthy this time. This is very much his film. He spends so much of it talking to camera, effectively breaking the fourth wall, it's almost a stand up routine. He cut his teeth with Ben Affleck in Kevin Smith's dialogue-heavy slacker comedies before moving to drama, so this role could have been written for him. He fits it perfectly. It's like Will Hunting learnt how to be a nice guy and became an astronaut. He is brilliant at holding the film together, virtually on his own. The rest of the movie orbits him, if you pardon the pun. If you’re not a fan of Damon, you might be put off having to stare at him for two hours, but he’s so affable in a strong and irreverent performance, this could convince you. Once you get past the disappointment his character isn’t called Marvin, that is. Would it have been so hard? We get pirates and disco music, surely Bugs Bunny villains aren’t so much of a stretch?