Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig & Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release Date: September 2015
Running Time: 144 minutes
Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meagre supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.
Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, The Martian is the ultimate tale of survival as American astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead and left stranded on Mars, forced to survive alone on the uninhabitable landscape until rescue can be sent from Earth. Having read the novel before seeing the film, I was curious how Ridley Scott would be able to bring the conversational diary-entry element of the book to the big screen. This is achieved by having Watney record a video diary of his experiences, giving us an insight into the character whilst he is isolated and alone. The movie doesn’t dwell too much on Watney’s isolation, opting instead to split the focus between the rescue efforts back home and Watney’s attempts to survive on a planet not fit for human life. I was expecting a greater focus on Watney’s isolation on the red planet, but the film concentrates more on the ramifications of Watney’s survival for future NASA projects as the world comes together to bring him home.
Even though The Martian takes place in the near-future and uses science-fiction elements to tell the story of manned missions on Mars, Andy Weir’s original novel was rooted in real-world technologies and the existing protocols established by NASA, using reasonable assumptions to predict where space technology is headed in the next few decades in order to fill in the gaps. As a result, the novel can be quite technical at times and while Weir manages to weave a compelling tale alongside the heavy detail, I did struggle to visualise some of the buildings and machinery whilst reading. Luckily, the cinematic version brings Weir’s vision to life and Ridley Scott creates a realistic view of the Ares 3 mission with technology that seems believable and accurate and he manages to channel that same sense of wonder about space that he brought to the opening sequence of Alien all those years ago. The vast vistas of the Mars landscape are breath-taking and there are some brilliant sequences, particularly when Watney is exploring his surroundings, which feel like they were filmed on Mars itself. In fact, I grew accustomed to the Mars environment so much that it didn’t really feel like a special effect to me, although it was clearly created using CGI effects.
Matt Damon does a great job at capturing Mark Watney’s sardonic sense of humour and his determination to engineer ways to survive, often acting and emoting to a video camera instead of another person. Damon does likeable well, and is able to quickly make the audience care for this character and root for his survival, even when it seems to come at great expense to those on Earth. I wasn’t expecting the supporting cast to have much of a role in the film, but they made up over half of the running time, with Jeff Daniels and Chiwetel Ejiofor standing out. I found myself surprisingly engaged with the political red tape as NASA attempted to work internally and with other countries to come up with a solution to save Watney before his food and water ran out. While the movie did attempt to put Watney in peril, there was no real sense of immediacy to the danger as a lot of the conversation was about prolonging the amount of time he could survive on the planet and attempting to make him last long enough to see rescue. There was the occasional moment of danger, such as when Mark’s helmet gets damaged or he almost blew himself up, but the bulk of the tension comes from the film’s final act.
In lieu of any family back home, Mark’s emotional connection throughout the movie is the rest of his team-mates on the Ares 3 mission, who find out that he is alive several months into their journey back home. Jessica Chastain plays Commander Lewis, who feels tremendous guilt about leaving him behind and it is these feelings that set-up the final act where the movie leans further into its science-fiction trappings with a high-risk rescue in outer space. Throughout his time on Mars, Watney doesn’t really seem to suffer any real psychological effects of the isolation or bleak situation he is in, especially when compared to Tom Hanks and his infamous inflatable friend Wilson in Cast Away. Watney seems abnormally chirpy and sarcastic throughout the film, able to shrug off the impossibility of his situation with a few jokes about disco music. If it was me out there, it would be a completely different situation – I’d have refused to eat potatoes grown in human shit and either starved, or taken a one-way walk out into the orange sands of Mars.
Sure, The Martian is a captivating story of man’s determination in the face of adversity but it never really feels earned. The film lingers more on the technology and the MacGuyver-esque ingenuity of its lead character than the emotional drama of being the only human alive on a planet. There are some neat moments towards the end of the movie when Watney contemplates these concepts, and his epic 90-day journey across Mars was beautifully shot, even though it was reduced to a montage sequence. That reminds me, The Martian did have some very cool montage moments with iconic Disco soundtracks juxtaposed against the Mars landscape, and of course, there’s also a bit of David Bowie in there – although they don’t use “Life on Mars?” – that would be too obvious!
There is no denying that The Martian is a beautiful film, and that glossiness extends to the narrative itself. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seemed a bit hollow at times and lacked an emotional core. Damon was genial enough as Watney, but his performance didn’t have the same range and impact as Tom Hanks’ turn as Chuck in Cast Away or even James Franco in 127 Hours. Perhaps the inclusion of the ensemble cast on Earth impacted upon Watney’s story, stealing some of the character’s limelight. Enjoyable, but ultimately not memorable, The Martian is definitely worth watching to get a fairly believable glimpse into the future of space travel, but it seems more focused on realism, accurate visuals and creating tension from deadlines than it does in getting you to care about its characters.