Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

The Martian


Improperly handled, optimism can be unbearable. One of the (many) problems with Chris Nolan’s Interstellar and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, two recent advocates for a return to space-age can-do adventurism in a jaded age, was their wild asymmetry between telling and showing. Both films were too breathlessly busy evangelising about mankind’s untapped potential to actually demonstrate that potential in action: ‘reach for the stars’ bluster can only get you so far. Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a highly polished and entertaining space castaway story based on Andy Weir’s novel, is sort of a fulfillment of these earlier film’s ambitions, selling its golly-gee cheerleading with spectacle, personality and wit. In Interstellar Matt Damon got trapped on a deserted planet and went homicidal. Here he gets trapped on a deserted planet and cracks jokes about disco.

Damon plays Mark Watney, an astronaut who gets left behind on the red planet after a manned mission goes awry and his crew gets outta dodge. Alone, wounded, and presumed dead on the desolate terrain, Watney does the thing he’s been trained to do: he gets to work. The stranded botanist has to find a way to survive until a rescue mission can be mounted, and sets about a project of mini-colonisation powered by math and duct tape, growing crops, making water and finding a way to contact Mission Control. It’s survival peril rendered as a series of problems to be solved and it’s surprisingly satisfying to have a sci-fi protagonist who, faced with life-or-death obstacles, sits down and does the sums. Indeed, the overriding character trait across the board is professional competency, not traditionally a source of drama, but a real relief after the over-educated dunderheads of Prometheus, Scott’s last jaunt into the deep dark.

The history of science fiction is littered with castaway cosmonauts who go mad with the solitude and fall into an existential hysteria. The Martian treats Watney’s predicament with a refreshing lightness of touch, tackled with an affable, grizzled good humour. With no-one else to talk to, Watney starts documenting his survival efforts via video camera, to provide some record and to help the audience keep up. Much of the film is a string of instructional monologues, which can come off a bit Blue Peter (don’t try this at home kids!), but Damon’s charmingly everyman Watney makes good company for the science lessons, eyebrows permanently raised in a ‘can you believe this shit?’ semi-smirk. The blankness of the character underneath the factoids and zingers isn’t a problem the film ever really overcomes – when he records a message for his parents, you realise with a shock that you don’t actually know a thing about the guy – but there’s enough spring in the film’s step to keep you from noticing.

The film benefits enormously from the presence of talented screenwriter Drew Goddard. Prometheus was gorgeous garbage sunk by the toxic script of Damon Lindelof, a writer who’s all tease and no payoff (he also contributed, predictably enough, to Tomorrowland). Goddard, with his background writing with Joss Whedon on Buffy, Angel and the pithy, self-aware Cabin in the Woods, knows how to do quippy genre work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Goddard doles out believable banter to all involved, the deep bench of a supporting cast giving small parts real life. The rest of Watney’s crew – Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie – must decide whether to mount a rescue, and the sacrifices they have to make for it. Back on home soil are the engineers of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, with Jeff Daniels as the space agency’s dry, pragmatic boss, flanked by Kirsten Wiig’s PR rep and the moral urgency of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean. Donald Glover’s manic, caffeinated astrophysicist is the only real concession to ‘eureka!’ conventions, but, like everyone else, he’s having a great time. There’s life on Mars after all. Conor Smyth



Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.