Gravity Meets Apollo 13
Going some way to redeeming himself after the visually opulent but narratively flawed Prometheus, Ridley Scott keeps things simple with this space survival drama.Despite being one of the best sci-fi films of the year, The Martian isn’t even as grounded in the genre as Interstellar and is far more Gravity in its documentary-style depiction of these fictional events that take place when an astronaut is stranded on Mars. Indeed, in 50 years time, future generations would likely be forgiven for thinking this was based on a true story, such is the Apollo 13-style plotting, which charts Matt Damon’s desperate survivor Mark Watney as he struggles from one day to next knowing that any potential rescue isn’t hours, days, weeks or even months away... it’s years away.Right from its opening credits – a resolute tribute to one of the veteran director’s leanest classics, Alien – it becomes apparent that Scott has gone for a more spartan approach to this latest epic, allowing both the bestselling novel’s narrative and the grand Red Planet’s striking landscape speak for themselves, without fanfare, without flourish. He works wonders with the tale, establishing a shocking first act tailspin that posits our hero, Watney, in an impossible situation 140 million miles from home, and leaving viewers with little uncertainty regarding the seemingly doomed fate of this stranded soul.
Alone in a base which looks little more substantial than a glorified family-sized tent, Watney is faced with the fact that the mission supplies were only designed to last a month, and that it would take years for anyone to get to him. With no direct means of communication with NASA, Watney struggles with the harsh environment, the failing equipment, the dwindling rations and the sheer isolation. Yet, as with the astronauts aboard that Apollo mission, or Sandra Bullock’s fighter in Gravity, Damon’s Watney isn’t prepared to give up without a fight.
Juggling multiple sub-plots mostly revolving around the frantic actions of the scientists back home – who have to balance the potential political ramifications of a globally-publicised slow-death with the near unfathomable obstacles preventing even the contemplation of mounting some kind of rescue attempt – Scott never leaves Watney’s daily struggles far from focus. Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor round out the broader cast (with only perhaps a playing-it-relatively-straight Kristen Wiig taking more than a moment to slip into the role) but the piece belongs to Matt Damon. He truly rises to the challenge, thankfully not reminding us for one second of his surprising cameo in Interstellar, and truly embodying the desperate but determined survivor through the horror – and humour-in-the-face-of-adversity – of the ultimate example of being stranded.
A rousing survival tale told with simple assuredness.
Further reminding us of Gravity in that Damon’s Watney could have easily been a younger version of Clooney’s seasoned veteran in the former film (or, indeed, of Redford’s protagonist in the similarly-themed underrated gem, All is Lost), there’s a fine balance of intelligence and humanity that he brings to the role, die-hard determination and pragmatic matter-of-factness. Perhaps the wit gives the piece a lighter tone than Cuaron’s modern masterpiece – which was essentially just 90 minutes of sheer breathless tension – and perhaps the focus shies away somewhat from the weightier themes surrounding psychological isolation, but Scott is at least always ready to bring suspense back to the fore, as Watney struggles through one obstacle only for the briefest reprieve before the next.
Ultimately The Martian is an accomplished, slick piece of filmmaking – a great lead role for Damon and a, thankfully, wonderfully grand-but-simple effort from Scott (whilst similarly visually striking, it's narratively leagues ahead of the incoherent, unresolved complexities of Prometheus) who returns to strong, assured, form here. Highly recommended.
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