Just short of a year ago, I was sat in a dark theatre having my mind bended in all sorts of directions by Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. This year, it appears that the sci-fi cinema audiences are swapping Matthew McConaughey for Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s big screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2001 novel The Martian. With the sheer spectacle that recent space pictures like Gravity and indeed Interstellar have provided over the last few years, there is a certain expectation with regards to new releases in the genre, an expectation to be bigger, bolder, better than the everything before. Would The Martian join the pantheon of these modern sci-fi classics, or would it be something of an aborted mission?
The plot of The Martian is simple. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, a member of a mission to Mars who, after a disastrous storm, is left alone on the red planet by his crew mates who has presumed him dead. Of course, when it comes to science-fiction, nothing is ever truly simple, and the narrative follows both Mark on Mars as he keeps daily vlogs detailing his days and means of survival, and the team at NASA who are desperately trying to conjure an innovative and time sensitive plan to save their man. The first thing to say about the film, and the thing that has stayed with me more than anything else, is that its tone is unlike any other science-fiction epic I have ever seen. Rather than drowning in its own melodrama and self-importance, The Martian is just as fun to watch as any of the good comedies that have been released this year. Detaching from the fact that the film is a mainstream project with blockbuster funding and power, there is something almost indie about its central sensibility that feels completely innovative given the genre. Instead of the last gasp, endlessly tense atmosphere that accompanies Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, for example, the time that the audience spends with Mark Watney is truly fun. To see the character problem solve his way through a seemingly impossible set of circumstances feels incredibly rewarding, and the upbeat sense of humour that is employed makes for an easy watching and completely captivating viewing experience. What The Martian does so expertly is to add a huge dose of humanity in to the cold, hard science of space travel. At its heart, the film is less about the equations and dynamics of science, and more about the sheer spirit and will power of humanity to pull together in the face of a gargantuan task. From the crew mates who dangerously decide to add another 500 days to their journey to try to save Mark, to the civilians on earth who crowd in to Times Square to watch the amazing feat unfold, there is a real feeling of momentous togetherness in the picture that leaves you feeling completely uplifted. Perhaps the focus on the human side of events rather than a blow by blow, intricate explanation of all of the science that is taking place might not satisfy hardcore sci-fi buffs as much as they would like, but for me personally, there was more than enough cool technology and innovation to sink my teeth in to, and it was nice not to miss important plot developments through sheer lack of understanding like I did in the complicated but enjoyable madness that was Interstellar.
Matt Damon gives an enjoyable performance as the stranded Mark Watney, taking on some physical challenges in order for the audience to believe that the character really did spend nearly two years on Mars with very sparse rations. It so often happens that even the most accomplished of actors come across very awkwardly when faced with the ‘daily vlogging’, more introspective style of acting, but even with no real partners to bounce off, Damon gives an enigmatic and endearing performance that captures the audience’s empathy from the very beginning. The remainder of the cast is split in to two key groups, the astronaut crew heading back from Mars and the team on the ground trying to solve the issue from Earth. Among the most enjoyable turns of the astronauts are Jessica Chastain as Commander Melissa Lewis and Kate Mara as computer expert Beth Johanssen, and along with characters played by Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, the group form an endearing team who are believably dedicated to retrieving their abandoned friend. The team at NASA include the acting talents of Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong, and once again the chemistry that they create as a group is both authentic and enjoyable to watch. Overall, the film is, as one would expect, packed full of recognisable faces and impressive talents, and most importantly, nobody lets the side down.
Ultimately, The Martian is a really quite excellent science-fiction adventure that possesses a unique and refreshing tone when compared to some of the other big genre releases in the last few years. It’s riveting, it’s captivating and it’s certainly intense when it needs to be, but more interestingly it remains charismatically upbeat in the face of it’s literally universally large obstacles. The film should be seen as great milestone moving forward, proving that filmmakers do not have to be melodramatic and overly serious to the point of boredom to achieve a real nail biter of a space story. I have been mentioning Gravity and Interstellar throughout this review, and though both of those films, especially Gravity are spectacular on the big screen, given the choice think I’d take The Martian at home every single time.