It’s not like the director of Alien and Blade Runner really needed to defend his sci-fi credentials, but following the unfair and negative opinion that has made the delightfully ambitious Prometheus so slandered in the memories of film-viewers, Scott returns with sci-fi more grounded with familiarity, but no less impressive.
Matt Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut presumed dead and abandoned by his crew following a storm. He is forced to try and survive on Mars alone, with only his brain and limited resources to survive the lonely terrain. “I’m going to science the shit out of this”, he quips, as if to take a line straight from the lips of Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman. He quite literally does just that – growing potatoes in excrement, perfectly organic. The film relies on unflinchingly hard science taken from Andy Weir’s novel and gorgeous planetary visuals to explore some deep notions through a straightforward story of survival and rescue.
The Martian is more akin to the nerve jangling Apollo 13 than the ethereal, artfulness of Gravity or the psychological moodiness of Moon, whilst still borrowing cues from both. It’s the first time cinema has married realism with Mars exploration. Even if it’s not philosophically dense like Interstellar, it exudes that same sense of wonder by displaying what humanity is (nearly) capable of. Damon is, as always, a likeable and charismatic screen presence, performing for the most part in solitary. He’s seen rationing food and attempting to communicate to earth whilst resonating virtues of human persistence. The Martian neatly divides its time between Mars, NASA HQ and the ship led by Jessica Chastain, which accidentally abandoned Watney, heading back home. The film tries not to take itself too seriously, with its disparate parts riffling off the complicated, extraordinary situation with humour.
What’s interesting is the lack of any antagonist: there is no contrived force for evil. At one point, the US is scrambling for a rocket to help save Watney. It turns out the Chinese have one lying around and you think this will act as an obstacle for the Americans, and that China will hold them at ransom. But no – it’s all done in the spirit of co-operation. The Martian relies more simply on its fundamental human virtues of exploration, loneliness and survival to ratchet up the tension. Scott effectively crafts a beautiful and immersive portrait of human capability, a wholly positive message alongside a will to have fun, whilst being unwilling to patronise its audience by keeping its science legit.
Review by David Rank
The Martian is out now in the UK. Rating 12A (UK). Running time 141 mins.