Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, Eddy Ko
Runtime: 2 hrs 22 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Disturbing Scenes)
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 1 October 2015
Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) 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 meager supplies, Watney 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.
As tempting as it may be to compare ‘The Martian’ with ‘Interstellar’, the two couldn’t be more different – and we mean that in a good way. Whereas Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi odyssey got (literally) lost in space with its own quantum physics, Ridley Scott’s stranded-on-Mars survival story stays rigorously grounded for pretty much its entire duration, relying on hard science and good ol’ human ingenuity to pull off a high-concept premise with ambition, derring-do and genuine heart. It is less fiction than fact, but that doesn’t stop it from easily being Scott’s best film in recent years.
Scripted by Drew Goddard from computer programmer-turned-author Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, it chronicles the ensuing days of a NASA botanist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in the aftermath of a sandstorm that forces his fellow Ares III crewmates to abort mission and head back to Earth, assuming because of a freak accident that he has been killed. Because his communication equipment has been damaged, Mark’s best hope in getting back to Earth is to wait four years for the next manned mission to arrive – that is, if he can survive that long.
Mark’s challenge is twofold – one, he has to make enough food in order to last 400 sols; and two, he has to drive 3,200 km across Mars terrain to get to the Schiaparelli crater where Ares IV is expected to land. Undaunted, Mark decides to overcome his first by growing his own food, an arduous feat which entails using recycled human waste to make fertiliser and burning hydrazine fuel to create water, in the hope of farming the potatoes meant for the crew’s Thanksgiving dinner. As for the latter, well let’s just say that the two Rovers which the crew left behind would need to do the trick.
Unbeknownst to Mark, NASA is quite aware that he is alive, thanks to an eagle-eyed NASA technician (MacKenzie Davis) who spots activity at the Ares III Hab – though not before the presumed dead astronaut is duly mourned. Leading the rescue mission is the head of NASA Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels essentially reprising Will McAvoy from HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’), the team comprising of the head of PR Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig), head of Mars missions Venkat Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), flight director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) and director of the Jet Propulsion Lab Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong). It is Venkat who surmises from Mark’s movement patterns that he is attempting to use the unmanned Pathfinder lander to communicate with NASA, thereby allowing both parties to have a direct line to each other.
Not to give anything away to those who have not read the novel, it suffices to say that a freak accident forces a change of plans to retrieve Mark sooner than previously planned, the eventual rescue effort both an unlikely collaboration between two distrusting world powers as well as a demonstration of the selflessness of Mark’s former crew members (played by Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie). Those who have read the book however will notice that Goddard has whittled and condensed some of the details to give the film a leaner but much punchier narrative, and perhaps most significantly, abandoned the use of Mark’s video logs which Weir had used in his novel as a framing device.
Quite astoundingly though, Scott’s film loses none of the intimacy of its source material in portraying Mark’s personality and emotional psyche. That is as much credit to Scott’s ability to translate Goddard’s writing into a spare but effective character study as it is to Damon’s warm, sincere and effortlessly winning performance. Much of the movie is held together by Damon and Damon alone, and the actor hits the character beats perfectly with just the right balance of optimism and cynicism to pull off the good dose of wry humour that made Mark such an engaging person in the first place. It isn’t difficult to root for someone in Mark’s circumstance, but Damon captures his character’s hopes, fears, disappointment and helplessness in such a tangible manner that it is hard not to feel an intimate connection with Mark.
On that same note, there is also much humanity in the interactions between the staff at NASA headquarters as well as Mark’s former crew on board the Hermes spacecraft. It is pleasantly surprisingly that the former is devoid of any political agenda – even a controversial key decision which Terry makes midway into the film is less out of expediency than a genuine concern of the risks involved – and the latter, like we said earlier, proves a rousing display of team spirit. As much as there is spectacle to be had in seeing the execution of a rescue mission of a man on Mars, Scott roots his film in the heart of the people involved in the process, such that the suspenseful climax delivers not just a thrilling send-off but an emotional payoff.
Yes, it is pretty much a given that ‘The Martian’ will boast of Scott’s striking visuals, and even with such heightened expectations, the 77-year-old filmmaker doesn’t disappoint. Together with his ‘Prometheus’ cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and production designer Arthur Max, Scott makes the most of the picture’s Wadi Rum filming location to create awe-inspiring images of one man against a harsh inhospitable environment, conveying both scale and isolation in breathtakingly elegant frames. From the opening standstorm to the sprawling deserts of Mars to the deep reaches of space, Scott immerses his viewer into an otherworldly beauty that makes for mesmerising viewing on the big screen.
That Scott is still able to astound us with his vision of space is in itself a notable achievement, but ‘The Martian’ stands out as one of his best films for being much more than spectacle. This is a celebration of the triumph of wits and will against the odds, especially notable in its generous dose of humour and whimsicality that is reflected also in an eclectic 70s pop soundtrack comprising of ABBA and other disco tunes. It is also tonally an uncharacteristically upbeat film from Scott, and a befitting shout-out to NASA and the brave men and women who have left our planet to find our place amongst the stars.
(By turns emotionally and viscerally thrilling, this outer space survival story has as much humour and heart as it does spectacle, and is easily Ridley Scott and star Matt Damon’s best work in years)