IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 146 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During the Ares III manned mission to Mars, astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and his crew commander Melissa Lewis decides to leave him behind. However, he has actually 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 survive and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. He eventually manages to begin communicating with NASA engineer Vincent Kapoor. NASA chief Teddy Sanders formulates a plan to send a probe to Mars and resupply Watney, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission….
Something strange has happened to Ridley Scott. For some time, his films have been mostly underwhelming and sometimes downright poor, climaxing in the double whammy of Prometheus and The Counsellor. I had written him off as another aging filmmaker who keeps on making films because he loves doing it but just isn’t very good at it anymore. However, Exodus: Gods And Kings, while undoubtedly very flawed [I wish that Scott, who tends to love releasing his films in a longer director’s cut, would go back on his word and do a longer cut for this one because it will probably iron out a few of the problems], was a major improvement, and now we have The Martian, which I genuinely believe is Scott’s best film since Thelma And Louise [sorry, I just don’t feel that Gladiator holds up very well]. How it has come to this I don’t know but it’s most welcome, though that doesn’t mean that I don’t think they shouldn’t scrap Alien: Paradise Lost and give up on all this Prometheus nonsense which is just ruining the mystique of the Alien franchise!
Scott’s Robinson Crusoe On Mars meets Apollo 13 arrives at a time when we have recently had two very fine space-set pictures, so it can’t help but be compared to them. The Martian may not have the constant nerve-wracking tension and astounding technical brilliance of Gravity, nor the mind-boggling ambition and heartbreaking emotion of Interstellar, and it isn’t an instant classic like those two movies, but it’s still an absolutely riveting watch. The approach taken by Scott and his writer Drew Goddard [who was initially going to direct], based on the book by Andy Weir which became a bestseller after, having failed to interest publishers in it, he started posting chapters to his website until a publisher came calling, is that of realism, continuing in the tradition of films like Destination Moon. NASA were heavily involved with the film’s science and technology, though some things like the spacesuits have been modified in design to look “cooler” on screen, while the script avoids the fantastical and instead really sets out to tell you how a person, though a person with far more scientific knowledge than most of us, could actually survive on Mars for ages, and how real-life attempts to get him home might be put together and happen. This means that the story, if you think about it, consists largely of – problem arises, somebody says something like “hang on, I’ve got an idea that just might work”, then another problem arises, and so forth – but it’s so entertainingly presented onscreen that this only really becomes properly apparent after the film has finished.
The Martian begins with a truly thrilling sequence where a storm attacks the Ares III, showing that Scott can still stage an exciting set piece up with the best of them, though in a way it’s deceptive because the film doesn’t at all proceed in this manner afterwards for a very long time. Our stranded astronaut Mark Watney wakes up very much alive but in a very serious predicament. The first thing he has to do is to carry out some impromptu self surgery in quite a graphic scene which is oddly very similar to one in Prometheus, though this one’s not unintentionally hilarious. Then he sets out to grow his own food, which requires that he create water, while he also needs to create some heat as it’s punishingly cold at night. I love it when films concentrate a single character alone, just doing stuff, partly because it can really show what an actor or actress is capable of, away from having to relate to other people [come on, I Am Legend was pretty good until those stupid monsters begun to show up]. Matt Damon is most definitely up to the task here, pretty much disappearing into his role [which is totally unlike the one he played in Interstellar where he was also a marooned astronaut] and the constant determined, chirpy attitude of his character even when most of us would have given up or gone insane [like poor Don Cheadle in another similar role] is rather inspiring. Much use of montage and music helps keep the pace going in these sections and it’s even rather educational.
Of course the film has to keep cutting back to the folk on earth trying to work out how to save him against impossible odds, and the film is a bit less interesting here, though one thing that the script does very well is make all the scientific stuff easy to understand without really dumbing anything down – in fact the whole screenplay manages to be both intelligent and accessible and is overall a major achievement considering the writer’s last script was for the dire World War Z. Some seem to find the humour a bit intrusive, but I don’t think it ever undermines the severity of the situation [while also being a large part of how Mark keeps sane during it], even if I feel the film could have done with having the suspense ramped up just a bit more. The funniest bit has young geek Rich [Donald Glover, in a great little part] demonstrate his hair-brained scheme to save Mark in a manner that annoys everybody else in the room, but it’s an important scene because it explains clearly what is going to be attempted later on in the film. A little more irritating is what looks like the latest example of Hollywood’s infuriating kowtowing to the Chinese in what appear to be some jarring late additions to the script, but are actually apparently, by and large, in the book. This part of the plot remains vague and unbelievable though – more unbelievable then a man going into space without the roof of his capsule – though apparently even this is possible. We don’t really spend enough time getting to know the Ares 3 crew either, especially in comparison with all the folk on earth, though perhaps the extra twenty minutes or so Scott has said we will see on Blu-ray will address this slight imbalance.
For the most part though, The Martian proceeds smoothly towards its thrilling climax which appears to have disappointed some by its supposed brevity but certainly had this critic grabbing on to the arms of his seat, even if the outcome of things is a little pat. The special effects are as good as they come – in fact if anything they’re even better than those in Gravity even if they seem less obviously elaborate – and at last we’re shown zero gravity shifting to earth gravity in a film, and in a convincing fashion [the fact that radio signals would take around half an hour to be received is ignored though, a surprising slip-up that even I picked up on!]. Despite all the hardware and meticulously researched space stuff, the emphasis is really on the human side of things and gives us the reassuring message that hope, skill, knowledge, hard work, willpower and science, if combined together, may just about be able to overcome any obstacle. Refreshingly, there are no bad guys, every character is likeable in a particular way, and the whole thing manages to be rather rousing and a warmer film than is usual from Ridley, though the one element of romance in the movie is adroitly restricted to one kiss and one line, which is all that it needs.
While in no way did I feel like I was missing out by seeing it in 2D, I have a feeling that The Martian is rather better in 3D than Prometheus where the 3D was so weak I sometimes wondered if I was watching the 2D version by mistake. The cast all do excellent work [yes, even Kristen Wiig], while the soundtrack mixes one of the year’s best scores from Harry Gregson-Williams, expertly mixing the electronic with the orchestral, with 70’s pop stuff which is apparently the only kind of music which Mark has with him to keep him company. The Martian isn’t really very original – I’ve just thought of another film which it seems to borrow from, Red Planet [if you’ve seen it, think of the rescue strategy] – and doesn’t contain anything really surprising, anything truly out of this world [sorry], but it’s still a supremely well crafted film from its 77-year old director who most definitely still has what it takes. At one point I was enjoying the film so much that I didn’t mind it when Abba came on which, as anybody who knows me really well will tell you, would normally send me out of the auditorium for a convenient toilet break.