Ridley Scott’s theatrical adaptation of Andy Weir’s intricate sci-fi novel may be his most accessible film. He doesn’t attempt to stage a deeper meaning towards the survival of one man on Mars or crowd it with cryptic symbolism. The strength of Scott’s The Martian is that he plays it straight and accurately – rarely slowing down for a moment without wonder, drama or humor.
It’s a simple story of survival in which Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind during a storm on Mars. His crew have left the planet believing that Mark has most likely bit the red dust. All alone on a deserted planet, Mark is forced to rely on the left-behind resources of his crew to keep himself alive. He grows potatoes in his make-shift greenhouse to maintain a longer supply of food. He seeks out communication parts to see if he can contact NASA. And he does his best to maintain his sanity when his limited means of entertainment is music from the 1970’s.
It’s clear there was a lot of research that went into both Weir’s writing and Scott’s direction – both applying suggestions and insight from scientists. Weir slowly formed his novel through online critiques by those in the field while Scott worked with NASA to deliver a believable movie that mostly takes place on Mars and in space. If I had read the novel or chosen a more fruitful degree in science, I could probably spend this entire review picking out what the movie nailed or missed in either the screen translation or scientific logic. Ultimately, not much of that would matter if the film wasn’t entertaining.
The amazing news is that Ridley Scott delivers on a sci-fi picture that is equal parts hard science and emotionally engaging. You may not be able to pick up on Mark’s quick thinking and reasoning as it happens on Mars, but you can relate to his frustration and cocky nature over his predicament. Though Mark is capable enough to survive on Mars, he is not above boasting about his success to the camera about how he’s better than Neil Armstrong. In that sense, The Martian is most easily pitched as a sci-fi version of Cast Away with the addition of hard science thrills and subtraction of any volleyball for Matt Damon to converse with.
The cast is all-around brilliant. While Matt Damon pulls an impressive performance with his one-man-show on Mars, the characters on the space station and back on Earth are all fantastic. Jeff Daniels commands an insightful presence as the director of NASA, calculated among the public and impatient around his staff. The staff placed in charge of saving Mark include the likes of Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sean Bean. This is quite the ensemble and yet there seems to be just enough for everyone to do as they all form an essential role in bringing home the lost astronaut.
Special effects have never been a problem when it comes to Ridley Scott movies and he applies a great deal of realism to the details of this story. Matt Damon’s trek through Mars feels like we’re on the red planet. The space station of the away astronauts has a believable quality on the level of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But unlike Kubrick’s space adventure which chugs along at a snail’s pace to take in the wonders of the universe, Scott’s picture is fast and focussed. It does become maybe a little too intricate in how various degrees of scientists and directors are pulled into the operation, but never too dense in that it avoids becoming a confusing mess of politics and technicalities.
The Martian may not be Ridley Scott’s greatest or most perplexing of films, but it certainly is his most entertaining picture that is easily recommendable to all audiences. It’s simple enough to enjoy on a character level and intricate enough to please the most scrutinizing of sci-fi fans. Everything about this film is a knockout from the performances to the special effects to the writing – all operating at peak efficiency. Who would have thought that a capable space adventure could be conceived without the need for aliens, space battleships or forced in elements of emotion. If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was a modest attempt at blending sensational entertainment with space exploration, The Martian is the real deal.
Reviewed by Mark McPherson, CinemaParadiso.co.uk