Once you have accepted the premise that NASA has successfully landed astronauts on Mars in the not-too-distant future, perhaps the most surprising thing about Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the upbeat tone of this castaway tale: Matt Damon’s stranded astro-botanist Mark Watney spends much of the movie cracking wise as he records video diaries and explains exactly what he’s doing in order to survive on the red planet, and there’s very little exploration of the post-traumatic stress, misery and doubt that Watney and the crew members who abandoned him would surely experience in such a situation. Perhaps retaining a sense of humour in the face of extreme adversity is the only way to survive on Mars, completely alone, without going insane. The frothy, light touch here certainly makes for an interesting comparison with Gravity or last year’s autumn sci-fi epic Interstellar, a bombastic outer space movie that took itself way too seriously (though there were occasional light-hearted moments involving that particular film’s robot). And what’s this? A disco soundtrack? Gloria Gaynor was one of the last acts I was expecting to hear.
At the start of the film we find Watney and his crew conducting experiments on the planet’s surface. There are early signs that Scott has opted for a bloated cast packed with familiar faces as Watney jokes with Jessica Chastain’s commander Lewis and Michael Peña’s astronaut Martinez; the crew is completed by characters played by Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, all three up-and-coming stars. Soon enough an extreme dust storm threatens their collective safety and forces the intrepid astronauts to leave for Earth, but an accident occurs, leading them to believe that Watney is dead, and they depart without him. But no! Our Mark manages to keep oxygen in his ripped space suit thanks to some implausible nonsense about shrapnel blocking the hole, and soon enough we’re following Watney’s attempts to grow potatoes out of his own faeces and establish communication links with NASA, which is apparently headed up by just four people (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig). This small band of executives and spin doctors back on Earth plot rescue missions with Californian scientists (Benedict Wong and Donald Glover both make the most of their minor roles) and contact Watney’s old crew members. He’s alive! There’s hope! Let’s go get our boy! And so on and so forth.
You’re not supposed to over-think The Martian, which is fine, but the film simply fails to get to grips with the mental state of Damon’s character, and instead unquestionably embraces the triumph of the human spirit and the notion of good humour willing out in the face of adversity. Watney remains relentlessly chipper throughout, aside from one or two instances where he punches things after setbacks occur, and he only displays outward signs of emotional fragility at the end of the film. This is a man who has been left for dead (on Mars, no less), has little to eat except for potatoes for hundreds of days on end, can only entertain himself with a poor collection of disco hits or a Happy Days box set (although we never get to see what he does with his surplus spuds) and is the subject of a rescue plan that requires him to head into space in a tin can covered with tarpaulin. Surely we should see him weep about his lot once or twice, rather than simply joke about it?
That said, I must admit I enjoyed being surprised by The Martian, and part of that surprise derives from the uplifting and comic tone, which is completely contrary to the human perservation story norm. I haven’t read Andy Weir’s source novel (adapted for the screen here by Drew Goddard) but I gather both book and screenplay are united in ditching the typically melodramatic links with home one would normally find in such tales, however far away the stranded protagonist may be; as such there’s no worried wife or cute little moppet waiting for dad to return, just a brief mention of a message Mark would like to be passed on to his parents, who we never actually see. This, coupled with the breezy, jokey nature, confounded my expectations. But I also feel like I can’t give The Martian an easy ride: too often the narrative is clumsily driven by people reading emails aloud, and the film’s inherent cheesiness may eventually test your patience, as it did mine. The final five minutes are particularly mawkish, and I also found myself cringing through many of the NASA-centric scenes; a subplot involving the China National Space Administration is unintentionally amusing (even though the Chinese authorities help with the rescue, Scott’s film descends into an unapologetic exercise in ‘Murican flag-waving by the end), while there’s far too much whooping and hollering and high-fiving at Mission Control throughout. I’m also ambivalent about seeing actors who have been excellent in bigger parts recently (such as Wiig, Chastain and Ejiofor) in smaller roles here. They’re all fine, though Wiig’s comic talents are curiously underplayed in what is essentially a fairly comic film, but in the past two or three years you could argue that each actor has developed beyond the point of playing second fiddle to Matt Damon. And I say that as a fan of Damon; he is a proper, old school movie star and he carries this film commendably, especially considering he’s all alone for most of it (Watney has no HAL 9000 or GERTY for company, sadly). All said it’s an enjoyable crowdpleaser, and one of Scott’s better films of recent years, but let’s not get carried away by all the hype. It isn’t a patch on earlier sci-fi masterpieces like this or this.
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Drew Goddard. Based on The Martian by Andy Weir.
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover.
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski.
Editing: Pietro Scalia.
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Various.
Running Time: 141 minutes.