Review: The Martian

The Martian was one of the best books I read last year, combining real science with a hilarious and resourceful hero dealing stoically (and accurately) with being isolated on Mars. The film adaptation was, for me, perfect – with screenwriter Drew Goddard expertly improving parts while keeping the comedy, resourcefulness and sense of hope. I know I went on about how good I thought Interstellar was last year, but The Martian is far, far superior – a real return to sci-fi form for director Ridley Scott (director of Alien and Blade Runner, two of the most influential science-fiction movies ever made) and one of Matt Damon’s best roles. And there’s no guff about love being a fifth dimension or whatever.

In the near future, humans have made it to Mars, and the Ares IV team, including Mark Watney (Matt Damon), are forced to abort their mission due to a storm, but on escaping their Mars base, Watney is struck by debris and thought dead. It’s only after the crew leaves for Earth that we discover he survived – and must now use his scientific skills and resolve to improvise escape. On Earth, NASA soon discovers, and some of the agency’s best minds work out how to help bring him home.

On Earth, NASA’s lead scientist Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), its head Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), the (English!) commander of Mission Control Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), head of PR Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) and long-suffering engineer Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong), work alongside young geniuses Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover) to get save Watney. On the Earth-bound craft, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and the other Ares IV crew members – Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Rick Martinez (Michael Pena) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie) – are dealing with the loss of their team member.

You might think that being trapped on another planet would be terrifying, horrific, grim and (in fiction) a bit soul-searchy, but what The Martian does is give us a protagonist who deals with their situation with great humour and ingenuity, who doesn’t give up or panic. This role is perfect for Matt Damon, who’s just got that easygoing, everyman way about him. Watney keeps a video diary through the habitat’s cameras, and so the performance is mostly Damon addressing the audience. The actor’s ability to be funny, but also convincingly explain the science he’s undertaking to stay alive, make the film fun and engaging. When there are moments of drama and tension, Damon excellently portrays Watney’s resolve to overcome them – and through it all his optimistic, never-give-up attitude is an great antidote to the usual blockbuster “anti-hero with baggage”.The Martian Launch One Sheet

Scott has managed to assemble an unbelievable supporting cast here as well. Even though some of these actors have bit-parts, they’re all great casting. The film is all about how we can achieve great things when we set our minds to them, and this extends from Watney to Mission Control and the Hermes craft. Ejiofor is a great counterpart to Damon as Kapoor, who discovers Watney is alive and leads the rescue attempts, showing compassion but also bringing a great sense of humour. Daniels benefits from a difficult role as the man in charge, who needs to be pragmatic, deal with hard decisions, yet keeping a sense of humour. Wiig couldn’t be better casting for NASA’s PR lady, with the comedienne’s snarky, bitchy asides perfect as a woman surrounded by nerds. Sean Bean seemed bizarre casting – he’s kept his northern accent, Bean fans – but he gives good Bean (honourable, loyal, serious) in the few scenes he has. This goes for Glover, of the TV show Community, Davis and British actor Wong, who have small but significant (and hilarious) parts to play as different NASA scientists integral to the rescue.

Jessica Chastain gets the best role on the crew, as the commander haunted about losing a crew member and friend. This is a far cry from Interstellar, and for once it seems she plays a role where she gets to have a laugh! The rest of the crew have even less to do, but create a sense of camaradarie even though we spend so little time with them – particularly Pena’s Martinez, who manages to make even the intricacies of astrodynamics hilarious.

While the film handles the transition of Watney’s diary to camera excellently, the nature of film means that there’s a fair bit of “people typing while reading out what they’re typing”, but I can forgive it that! I was underwhelmed by the soundtrack from Harry Greyson-Williams, but I guess this film was never going to need something bombastic in the background when there’s not so much action as humour, drama and a lot of conversation – though some hilarious popular music underpins Watney’s life on Mars (not that song though)! Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski manages to make us believe that the arid deserts of Jordan are the Red Planet, with the contrasts stark between the yellow haze of Mars and the clinical spaces in NASA and in Watney’s habitat – it’s becoming a cliche, but Ridley Scott movies always look really good, even when they’re otherwise a bit crap (Prometheus).

This is not an action film, but then it’s not about that – it’s a comedy/drama/thriller, almost along the lines of Apollo 13 I’d say. And if you haven’t read the book, I’m sure that the plot and its many twists will provide surprises and enjoyment for you regardless! I really enjoyed it despite knowing the resolution from the beginning, and that’s the mark of a great adaptation.

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